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Oct 22, 2008
It's all go for moon-struck India
By Raja Murthy
MUMBAI - A 52-hour countdown began on Monday morning to India's first mission
to the moon, with the unmanned spacecraft Chandrayaan-I being revved up to
launch the country's expanding space ambitions. These include a manned moon
mission by 2015, a robotic Mars visit by 2012 and even a moon colony as a base
for interplanetary exploration.
The 1.3 tonne, cube-shaped orbiter Chandrayaan-1, which looks like a hurriedly
gift-wrapped parcel in gold paper, will be blasted off from the Sriharikota
space port near Chennai in the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday, if weather gods
keep the northeast monsoon rains away.
Unlike previous moon missions from Earth, Chandrayaan-1 will make history as
the first lunar craft to undertake a comprehensive close mapping of the moon,
instead of focusing only on specific regions or aspects.
Chandrayaan, meaning "moon vehicle" in Hindi, will "prepare a three-dimensional
atlas [with a high spatial and altitude resolution of 5 millimeters to 10m] of
both the near and the far side of the moon", according to the Indian Space
Research Organization (ISRO).
That India should be shooting for the moon at a time when the global economy is
trembling fearfully speaks not just for the country's impressive economic
stability, but also the quality of its space scientists. They have ensured that
Chandrayaan-1 also makes history as the least expensive moon ambassador from
Chandrayaan-1 cost US$74 million, cheap if compared, for instance, to Japan's
$279 million Selene (Selenological and Engineering Explorer) moon probe, which
took off from Japan's Tanegashima island space port on September 14, 2007.
Moreover, $20 million of the $74 million Chandrayaan-1 cost went into valuable
reusable infrastructure, such as building a trio of Earth-stationed trackers of
moon-mission data - the Deep Space Network, the Spacecraft Control Center and
the Indian Space Science Data Center, all located at Byalalu, near Bangalore in
"We are spending hardly 0.5% of our national budget on our scientific programs,
and what we are spending on Chandrayaan is hardly only 3% of our budget over
the last five years," ISRO chairman Madhavan Nair told media.
Nair, who hopes to establish the world's first space institute with a four-year
graduation course, which would lead to an ISRO job, often mentions being
pleasantly surprised at a Madras School of Economics study five years ago that
revealed how India gets a $2 return for every $1 invested in its space program.
India's space budget of $1 billion is one-tenth that of the US's National
Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and less than half of China's space
Nair, however, does not mention that the study also pointed out that the
average salary of ISRO scientists is one-eighth that of the US and Europe. The
low labor costs are a major reason for India's comparative advantage in
satellite production and launch costs, said the Madras School of Economics
More credit is due to Indian scientists as lower pay has not induced them to
leave for higher-paying jobs abroad, or compromise on quality in producing
advanced technology such as in Chandrayaan-1 to fly on a five-day journey to
the moon and orbit it for two years.
With India's Chandrayaan, China's Chang'e (named after the Chinese goddess of
the moon) and Japan's Selene moon probe, Asia has earned a considerable edge in
humanity's early steps into exploring what lies around the moon and beyond.
"The real space race is in Asia," acknowledged the headline of a Newsweek
article in its September 29, 2008, issue, and it went further in its latest
issue declaring India to be a world leader in practical applications of space
technology which can improve the quality of life on Earth, such as assisting in
communications, agriculture, weather forecasting, rural development and
Besides the nationwide celebrations that will follow on Wednesday if the launch
successfully takes off, more substantial carrots dangling for the moon
expedition include the prospect of mining lunar minerals such as magnesium,
aluminum, silicon, calcium, iron and titanium.
Added delights include the possibility of finding deposits of uranium and
thorium to feed nuclear power plants on Earth. So the global scientific
community is also expected to keenly track Chandrayaan-1, which also hopes to
locate helium-3 on the moon, considered an environmentally clean nuclear fuel.
Chandrayaan-1 will firmly establish India as a leading space power. As ISRO
chairman Nair pointed out, India has so far managed to send satellites to a
36,000 kilometers distance in a geo-stationary orbit, but the moon mission will
carry India's national flag tricolors to a distance of 400,000 km.
Also aboard Chandrayaan-1 are 11 scientific instrument payloads, including from
the US, Germany, Sweden and Bulgaria.
"The ISRO is not charging any money for the payload," said Sridhar Murthy,
executive director of Antrix, the marketing division of the ISRO.
"Chandrayaan-1 is purely a non-commercial, scientific mission."
Murthy told Asia Times Online that India's moon mission is part of a space
program expansion that includes increasing the capacity of its Geosynchronous
Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-3) rocket to carry larger satellites (it can
presently launch a 2.5 tonne satellite), launching a new ocean observation
satellite and advanced communication satellites.
While Nair's claim of India having a technologically superior space program to
that of neighboring China might be hotly debated across the border, India has
already launched 50 satellites since its first satellite, Aryabhata, was sent
up on the Russian launch vehicle Intercosmos on April 19, 1975.
Significantly, the low-budget Chandrayaan-1 ensures India is fast consolidating
its reputation as a key cost-effective player in the growing stakes in global
space commerce. India has indigenously developed two satellite launch vehicles
to carry payloads, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) used for launching
IRS satellites and Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicles (GSLV).
On April 28, India became the first country to send 10 satellites in one launch
when the PSLV-C9 took off from Sriharikota with India's CARTOSAT-2A and IMS-1
satellites, as well as eight micro-satellites from other client countries.
Chandrayaan-1, too, will get a ride from India's workhorse space taxi, the
14-year-old, 45-meter tall, 295-tonne Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), in
an upgraded version the PSLV-C11.
The Chandrayaan-1 payloads include the US's Miniature Synthetic Aperture Radar
(MiniSAR) from the Applied Physics Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University and
Naval Air Warfare Center, Bulgaria's Sub KeV Atom Reflecting Analyser (SARA)
from the Institute of Space Physics, Germany's Near Infra Red spectrometer
(SIR-2) from Germany's Max Plank Institute, Lindau, Bulgaria's Radiation Dose
Monitor Experiment (RADOM), and the US's Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) from Brown
University and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Not to be missed is the juicy irony of an Indian spacecraft carrying a NASA
payload - the US led the global ban of high technology to India's space and
nuclear program for decades after it tested its first atomic bomb in 1974.
This, from the owner of the world's largest nuclear weapon arsenal, came as a
blessing in disguise as Indian scientists brilliantly worked out indigenous
technology that is now advanced enough for the US and European countries to
have a piggyback ride in South Asia's first moon mission.
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