On to India’s next space chapter


People watching a live stream of Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft’s landing on the moon at the auditorium of Gujarat Science City in Ahmedabad, India. — Reuters

TWO visitors from India – a lander named Vikram and a rover named Pragyan – landed in the southern polar region of the moon on Aug 23.

The two robots, from a mission named Chandrayaan-3, make India the first country to ever reach this part of the lunar surface in one piece – and only the fourth country ever to land on the moon.

“We have achieved soft landing on the moon,” S. Somanath, the chair of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), said after a roar ripped through the ISRO compound just past 6pm local time. “India is on the moon.”

The Indian public already takes great pride in the accomplishments of the nation’s space programme, which has orbited the moon and Mars and routinely launches satellites with far fewer financial resources than other space-faring nations.

An undated photo provided by the Indian Space Research Organization of the Aditya-L1, the first space-based Indian observatory to study the sun. The Chandrayaan-3 mission makes India the first country to reach the lunar south polar region in one piece and adds to the achievements of the country’s homegrown space program. (Indian Space Research Organization via The New York Times)  — NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH NYT STORY SLUGGED INDIA MOON LANDING BY HARI KUMAR, ALEX TRAVELLI, MUJIB MASHAL AND KENNETH CHANG FOR AUG. 23, 2023. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED. —An undated photo provided by the Indian Space Research Organization of the Aditya-L1, the first space-based Indian observatory to study the sun. The Chandrayaan-3 mission makes India the first country to reach the lunar south polar region in one piece and adds to the achievements of the country’s homegrown space program. (Indian Space Research Organization via The New York Times) — NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH NYT STORY SLUGGED INDIA MOON LANDING BY HARI KUMAR, ALEX TRAVELLI, MUJIB MASHAL AND KENNETH CHANG FOR AUG. 23, 2023. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED. —

But the achievement of Chandrayaan-3 may be even sweeter, as it comes at a particularly important moment in the South Asian giant’s diplomatic push as an ambitious power on the rise.

Indian officials have been advocating in favour of a multipolar world order in which New Delhi is seen as indispensable to global solutions.

In space exploration, as in many other fields, the message of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been clear: the world will be a fairer place if India takes on a leadership role, even as the world’s most populous nation works to meet its people’s basic needs.

And with the success of Chandrayaan-3, Modi can reap benefits in leaning into India’s scientific prowess to “more confidently assert Indian national interest on the world stage”, said Bharat Karnad, an emeritus professor of national security studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

The control room in Bengaluru became a joyous scene among ISRO engineers, scientists and technicians.

Speaking after the landing, members of the ISRO leadership who managed Chandrayaan-3 made clear that the failure of their last moon landing attempt, in 2019, was a major driving force behind their work.

An image provided by the Indian Space Research Organization of the lunar surface, taken by Chandrayaan-3’s lunar hazard detection and avoidance cameras on Aug. 19, 2023. The Chandrayaan-3 mission makes India the first country to reach the lunar south polar region in one piece and adds to the achievements of the country’s homegrown space program. (Indian Space Research Organization via The New York Times)  — NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH NYT STORY SLUGGED INDIA MOON LANDING BY HARI KUMAR, ALEX TRAVELLI, MUJIB MASHAL AND KENNETH CHANG FOR AUG. 23, 2023. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED. —An image provided by the Indian Space Research Organization of the lunar surface, taken by Chandrayaan-3’s lunar hazard detection and avoidance cameras on Aug. 19, 2023. The Chandrayaan-3 mission makes India the first country to reach the lunar south polar region in one piece and adds to the achievements of the country’s homegrown space program. (Indian Space Research Organization via The New York Times) — NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH NYT STORY SLUGGED INDIA MOON LANDING BY HARI KUMAR, ALEX TRAVELLI, MUJIB MASHAL AND KENNETH CHANG FOR AUG. 23, 2023. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED. —

“From the day we started rebuilding our spacecraft after Chandaryaan-2 experience, it has been breathe in breathe out Chandrayaan-3 for our team,” said Kalpana Kalahasti, the mission’s associate project director.

Chandrayaan-3 is a scientific mission, timed for a two-week period when the sun would shine on the landing site and provide energy for the solar-powered lander and rover. The lander and rover would use a range of instruments to make thermal, seismic and mineralogical measurements.

India and ISRO have many other plans afoot

Although an Indian astronaut flew to orbit on a Soviet spacecraft in 1984, the country has never sent people to space on its own. India is preparing its first astronaut mission, called Gaganyaan.

But the project, which aims to send three Indian astronauts to space on the country’s own spacecraft, has faced delays, and ISRO has not announced a date.

The country has also launched a solar observatory called Aditya-L1, and later, an Earth observation satellite built jointly with Nasa. India is also planning a follow-up to its recently concluded Mars orbiter mission.

Somanath has described the current moment as an inflection point, with the country opening its space efforts to private investors after half a century of state monopoly that made advances but at “a shoestring budget mode of working”.

“These are very cost-effective missions,” he said after the landing. “No one in the world can do it like we do.”

When pressed by reporters about the cost of Chandrayaan-3, Somanath deflected with laughter: “I won’t disclose such secrets, we don’t want everyone else to become so cost-effective!”

While ISRO will continue exploring the solar system, the accomplishments of India’s private sector may soon garner as much attention.

A younger generation of space engineers, inspired by SpaceX, have started going into business on their own.

While ISRO’s budget in the past fiscal year was less than US$1.5bil, the size of India’s private space economy is already at least US$6bil and is expected to triple as soon as 2025.

And the pace of change is quickening. Modi’s government wants India to harness the private sector’s entrepreneurial energy to put more satellites and investment into space – and faster.

To date, spacecraft have successfully landed on the moon closer to the equator. The polar regions are intriguing because there is frozen water at the bottom of permanently shadowed craters.

If such water can be found in sufficient quantities and extracted, astronauts could use it for future space exploration.

The lunar south pole is the intended destination for astronauts who could visit the moon as part of Nasa’s Artemis programme, and also for upcoming Chinese and Russian missions.

In the nearer term, as many as three robotic missions, one from Japan and two from private US companies working with Nasa, could head to the moon later this year.

In Bengaluru after the launch, Somanath hinted that India had its eyes on worlds beyond the moon.

“It is very difficult for any nation to achieve. But we have done so with just two attempts,” he said.

“It gives confidence to land on Mars and maybe Venus and other planets, maybe asteroids.” — ©2023 The New York Times Company

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