India’s lunar spacecraft Chandrayaan – I in a wider context

India successfully launched its first unmanned spacecraft, Chandrayaan-I, on 22 October 2008. On 14 November 2008, it entered its final operational orbit at a height of 100 km from the lunar surface. The same day, Moon Impact Probe (MIP) was released to hit the southern pole of the Moon .Much to the delight of the Indians, the Probe deposited India’s national flag on the Moon. The choice of the date was significant. 14 November is the birthday of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and a great supporter of science and technology.

Chandrayaan carried eleven thematically integrated scientific payloads, five from India, three from European Space Agency (ESA), two from USA and one from Bulgaria. All the experiments aimed at creating a high-resolution map of the lunar surface and the minerals beneath it. Although the mission was originally planned to last two years, it had to be aborted on 30 August 2009, once the craft lost radio contact with the earth. It however did provide valuable data while it lasted.

The most spectacular early scientific results from the mission came from the two US payloads; a mineral explorer nick-named M3; and a radar named mini-SAR. They provided first direct confirmation of presence of water in the form of ice on the Moon. The M3 paper, with Carle Pieters as the lead author, was published in Science on 24 October 2009. It was followed by the mini-SAR paper, with Paul Spudis as the first author, which appeared in the 22 December 2009 issue of Geophysical Research Letters. The Americans handsomely acknowledged the contribution of Indian space technologists. Pieters went on record declaring that “If it were not for them, we would not have been able to make the discovery”.

Like Indian Space Research Organization’s earlier missions this one was also a remote sensing satellite except that Chandrayaan-I focused on the Moon rather than the Earth. The Moon has never been imaged as closely as was done by the Chandrayaan. With its successful launch India joins a select club comprising US, Russia, Japan and China. India’s space program is extremely good value for money from even international standards. No wonder then that ISRO’s rocket launching facilities are being commercially used by others. Perhaps the best testimony to India’s space program comes from the fact that it had such high faith in its own capabilities that no need was felt to insure the Chandrayaan.

Indian public, parliament and media as well as the world at large have been unanimous or near-unanimous in hailingIndia’s foray into the outer space. India now plans to use cryogenic fuel for its rocket launch. There is already a talk about manned space flights, mission to Mars, and commercial space travel.India’s first attempt to launch an advanced communication satellite using cryogenic fuel faile on 15 April 2010)

India’s space program is the most successful of all national science initiatives. One reason for this is easy to see. In space exploration there is no room for excuses or rationalizations. The difference between success and failure is obvious. Either a satellite remains in orbit or falls down. The principles and procedures that have been developed in space management need to be carefully studied with a view to examining the possibility of their wider application in India’s other initiatives in science and technology.

Rising and flat technologies

Without diminishing the credit due to India, its space program needs to be examined in a wider context for purposes of insight. Let us make a distinction between a rising technology and a flat technology. As the name suggests a rising technology is one which is currently undergoing rapid phases of development while a flat technology is one which has been more or less standardized. Clearly, a rising technology of today is a flat technology of tomorrow.

USA focuses its attention on the rising technologies of the day. Once they are standardized, it parcels them off to lesser countries, e. g. in car manufacture. (This is certainly not a good philosophy. In addition to focus on rising tech, production of wealth through flat techs is good for a country’s economy and mindset.)

If lunar missions now have been left to the likes of Japan,China and India, it is because the missions now constitute standard technologies. If colonization and mining of celestial bodies become a possibility, you would see the initiative being grabbed back by US and to a lesser extent by ESA.

Profit motive

It is interesting that when Mount Everest is climbed, no justification is asked for or proffered. Yet in the case of a technological mission some profit should be promised. May be this is because of the heavy costs involved.

It has been proposed that the Moon itself can be colonized and used as a launching pad for farther colonies. The India’s new space chairman has suggested that the tunnels made on the moon by lava can be used for housing humans, and probably their pets also. If this is escapism, there is another suggestion that the Moon be asked to meet Earth’s energy and resource need. As is well known the lunar soil contains vast amounts of helium 3, an isotope of helium. There are experts who would  like  this helium to be dug up and brought to earth for use as a raw material for fusion reactions. It has been suggested that water be brought from Moon to the Earth for consumption here. To me, the whole idea of bringing resources from the Moon to the Earth is an exceptionally stupid one and needs to be squashed right away. I shall however support the move to park all the cars on the Moon and utilize Earth’s surface in a more constructive manner.

I mention this to encourage you to formulate your own views on the subject.

US role in pre-history of India’s space program

India was introduced to the new field of satellites as part of the International Geophysical Year 1957-58 program. Naini Tal Observatory in the Himalayas was chosen as one of the 12 field stations equipped by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory with a Baker-Nunn camera for optical tracking of the artificial satellites. The project continued till 1976. During the first two years, an observer from SAO worked with the Naini Tal staff. The contacts during IGY led to India’s participation in the US Satellite Instructional Television Experiment. After completion of the contractual one-year period, India took the help of commercial satellites and then developed its own satellite network.

In 1963, India established Equatorial Rocket Station at Thumba, near Trivandrum, in South India. The site was chosen because it is located just half a degree south of the magnetic equator. ISRO was established in 1969, and India’s first satellite named Aryabhata after the celebrated 6th century astronomer, was launched in 1976.


What would limit India’s space ambitions is not technology or finance but manpower. Globalization has encouraged well-trained Indian young men and women to take up petty jobbery, beneath their intellect and skills, for the sake of a dollar pay packet which though small in absolute terms still translates into a neat bundle in Indian rupees.

Fortuitously  Chandrayaan’s launch has coincided with the onset of world-wide financial and economic crises. It is as well that the quantification of financial instruments has fallen into disrepute and the processes of globalization received a setback.  Their glamour and pelf were acting as a brain sink, to the detriment of science. If Lehman Brothers was to be the resting place for Indian Institute of Technology-imparted engineering skills, it is good that it has closed down.

India’s quest for water on Moon

The impact probe MIP which deposited Indian national flag on the Moon also carried a scientific payload, nick-named CHACE, comprising a mass spectrometer. During the 25 minutes of fall on to the lunar surface, CHACE obtained data confirming the presence of water vapour in  the Moon’s atmosphere on the sunlit side. A team of Indian scientists sent their paper to Science in December 2008, which however rejected it in March 2009. The Indian authors then sent the paper to Nature in April 2009, which also rejected it, in July 2009. Finally, in November 2009, the paper, with R. Sridharan as the first author was sent to a lesser journal Space and Planetary Science which published it on 6 March 2010.In the mean time both the US publications, from the M3 and mini-SAT teams, had already appeared, as already noted.

It is significant that the Indian authors chose to try their luck in international journals like Science and Nature rather than quickly publish their findings in an Indian journal. //

2 Replies to “India’s lunar spacecraft Chandrayaan – I in a wider context”

  1. Dear Rajesh: It will be interesting to examine the three papers – the Indian paper rejected by both Science and Nature and the two papers by the US scientists which were accepted and published BEFORE the Indian paper appeared in print.


  2. Good for India. They deserve it, as they are a very hard working culture with some brilliant people there.

    this is my favorite part though…

    “They provided first direct confirmation of presence of water in the form of ice on the Moon. ”

    Crazy to think that there’s actual H2O molecules out there. Kinda like a science fiction movie.

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