Reaching For The Moon

Amidst much hype and debate, India’s first lunar spacecraft has taken off on this morning from a hazy launch pad in Sriharikota in southern Andhra Pradesh. With the Rain Gods having given just enough respite for Chandrayaan 1 to launch on its 2 year mission, India now enters the league of a select group of nations who have successfully sent satellites to orbit the moon. This is a matter of national pride, and a feather in the cap of the nation’s premier space research laboratory – ISRO.

The goals of this mission are plenty. A special feature on Rediff News lists them as below:

The Chandrayaan-1 mission is aimed at high-resolution remote sensing of the Lunar surface in visible, near Infrared, low energy X-rays and high-energy X-ray regions.

Specific scientific goals are:
• To prepare a three-dimensional atlas (with a high spatial and altitude resolution of 5-10m) of both near and far side of the moon.

• To conduct chemical and mineralogical mapping of the entire lunar surface for distribution of elements such as Magnesium, Aluminum, Silicon, Calcium, Iron and Titanium with a spatial resolution of about 20 km and high atomic number elements such as Radon, Uranium & Thorium with a spatial resolution of about 40 km.

By simultaneous photo geological and chemical mapping we will be able to identify different geological units, which will test the hypothesis for the origin and early evolutionary history of the moon and help in determining the nature of the lunar crust.

Besides the above, there is an additional aim of exploring the possibility of harvesting Helium 3, a key fuel for nuclear fusion, which the moon is said to contain a whopping 5m tonnes.

While these are a few of the reasons for India to undertake this mission, there has been widespread debate and criticism of the Government’s decision to participate in the space race at the cost of development. A lot of critics feel that the budget of Rs.386 crores could have been better deployed in the improvement of basic living conditions. While these are valid arguments, and deserve attention, these are a few aspects of the lunar mission which might work in its favour:

1. The cost of the mission has been kept at a bare minimum. Infact, China’s lunar spacecraft which was launched last year had cost almost twice as much

2. Space programs to date in India, which largely consisted of sending communication satellites into orbit, have greatly benefited remote villages by linking them via tele-links to schools and hospitals in cities and providing education and healthcare facilities

3. The mission helps in strengthening India’s technological prowess and its reputation for research and development, thus opening up many avenues for high value trade and commerce

4. It will reduce the dependence of our nation on foreign superpowers for information, which might be critical in the future. Data collected from the moon mission could help in formulating India’s energy solutions as well as defense programs

Randeep Ramesh of The Guardian reports:

Earlier this year India was ranked by analysts at Futron, a hi-tech consultancy, as only a fraction behind China in global space competitiveness rankings, and well ahead of Japan, Israel and Canada. It is also building a low-cost, hi-tech base. China’s Chang’e I cost nearly double India’s Chandrayaan I bill of $86m.

This thriftiness was born of necessity. With an annual budget of about $1bn – less than a tenth of Nasa’s – Isro has to do a lot with little.

“The whole thrust of [India’s space programme] has been to get real benefits,” said Gopal Raj, author of Reach For The Stars, a book about the country’s rocket programme. Raj pointed out that the Madras Institute of Development Studies recently calculated that for every rupee spent on the space programme, two were generated in “indirect and direct returns”.

It is obvious that there are many facets to this debate, and it is difficult for us to decide conclusively what the right path is. However, one thing easy to see is that India is on the path of scientific progress, which we hope will bear astronomical returns for its billions of citizens.

Excerpts from: The Guardian and Rediff News
Image Courtesy: Rediff News

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