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Monday, October 20, 2008

(E)N-powered India races to the moon

Pallava Bagla
Monday, October 20, 2008 12:04 PM (Bangalore)

India having broken its nuclear shackles after getting its way with the nuclear deal inked, the country is now racing to reach its nearest celestial neighbor the moon. This will make India only the sixth country in the world to attempt a mission to the moon.

The country's maiden spacecraft to the moon, Chandrayaan-1, has been readied and is now being accommodated atop India's workhorse rocket the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and the journey is all set to begin on the morning of October 22, from a nondescript island on the coast of the Bay of Bengal.

The Chandrayaan is not just a technological marvel from a country half the population of which lives below the poverty line but also an assertion of India's growing prowess as a regional superpower. "It is not a question of whether we can afford to go to the moon. It's whether we can afford to ignore it", explains Dr. K. Kasturirangan, Member, Rajya Sabha and Former Chairman, Indian Space Research Organization.

Chandrayaan-1 is a Maruti 800 car sized unmanned satellite that will orbit the moon for two years while mapping the resources of the moon like never before. The Indian mission is carrying the largest suite of instruments ever to be carried to the moon by any country in more than the half century of lunar exploration. That ISRO is all set to make history even as it steps out of the earth orbit for the very first time only shows that Indian scientists are second to none.

The satellite hides in its golden glory 11 different scientific instruments that will work in tandem to generate a complete three dimensional geographical atlas of the moon with a resolution of almost 5 meters. Till date, there exists only a sketchy atlas of the lunar surface even though twelve human beings have walked on the moon. The Indian mission hopes to map both the near side and the far side of the moon.

This US $ 100 million mission is going to be the most intense search for water that has ever been conducted on the moon. Several instruments are dedicated to unravel water that may be hidden deep inside the dark craters which are located around the lunar poles.

Finding water on the moon is a significant objective as humans hope to establish permanent colonies on the moon in the very near future and then may decide to use the moon as a staging point to go to Mars and other planets. Since without water there is no life, and carting water across 400,000 kilometers is expensive.

The Indian mission will also search for that magical element called Helium 3, a so-called panacea for meeting the earth's ever-growing energy requirements. Helium 3 could possibly feed into the futuristic nuclear fusion reactors and result in a clean source of energy.

Role Reversal

The nuclear apartheid may just have been removed, but this poor country of a billion plus people had agreed to provide free tenancy to instruments from several countries which had erected these unjust technology denial regimes against India. Chandrayaan is an Indian mission that has as many as 14 international partners.

Two instruments from NASA are being flown to the moon. Four more are being flown for European nations like UK, Germany, Bulgaria and Sweden. These partners are not paying even a single paisa for this 400,000 kilometer journey, being fully paid for by the Indian tax payer. Yes, the Americans, the Brits, the Swedes and the Germans are getting a free ride to the moon; in return they have to share the scientific data that they collect from the lunar surface with the Indian team.

In a way Chandrayaan is also an assertion of India's growing ambitions of geopolitics. One of the first tasks Chandrayaan has been assigned to conduct is to place the Indian flag on the lunar surface. This will happen when India deliberately drops a probe onto the moon surface, a feat that has not been attempted for the last 32 years. When that is achieved India would become the fourth country after Russia, America and possibly Japan to have placed their national emblems on the moon. This is being done so that in the distant future when lunar riches are shared India could well have a right over the moon.

If the moon is the first stepping stone the Indian space agency also has its eyes all set on several deep space missions which already include sending a small buggy that will move on the moon and analyze lunar soil by 2012, a project being conceived in collaboration with Russia for which the government has already sanctioned Rs 425 crores. A mission to study the sun, aptly called Aditya, is also being planned while missions to Mars and an asteroid are also on the anvil. Dr. G. Madhavan Nair, Chairman of ISRO emphasizes, "India cannot lag behind in access to space."

Taking Indians into space on indigenous Indian rockets being launched from the Indian spaceport of Sriharikota has not escaped the attention of the Indian space agency. ISRO feels it can undertake a manned spaceflight within eight years of a nod from the government but this would cost the exchequer upwards of Rs 10,000 crores. A newly energized India is now getting ready to assert its cutting edge capabilities in high technology and compete with the very best in the world.

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