Why Chandrayaan-3 is a great step forward for Indian space programme

Chandrayaan-3 will build on the laurels of its predecessors

PTI08_20_2023_000192B Imaging: B. Manojkumar

As the dust settles around the lander module of Chandrayaan-3, India’s jubilant masses celebrate an achievement of its best minds. The successful soft landing of Chandrayaan-3 on the moon is a historic moment for India, making it one of only four nations to have demonstrated lunar soft landing capability, after Russia, the US and China. The Indian space programme has established its leadership in space with indigenous cryogenic engines and initiatives to de-clutter the orbit. Further, the Chandrayaan missions are a testament to its continued commitment to science in space. The Chandrayaan-3 mission will help India and the world learn more about the moon and its potential for resources and exploration.

The mission will enable a range of technologies for strategic applications. For example, the rover module can be modified to serve as a reconnaissance tool for border regions.

What’s the big deal?

In order to understand what makes the Chandrayaan-3 mission so important, and what this achievement really means for India, it is necessary to look at the history of lunar exploration. The US and Russia established their lunar soft landing capabilities in 1966, nearly a decade into the space race and after several failed attempts. As we know, the Apollo missions between 1969 and 1972 made the US the only country to have human moon landing capability. It is worth noting that since then, most missions to the moon were primarily designed as orbiters with probes (or the orbiter at its end of life) that would crash into the moon.

After four decades of orbiter missions, lunar exploration gathered steam again in 2019, as three missions attempted soft landing. Chang’e 4 of China landed successfully on the far side of the moon along with the Yutu-2 rover. Beresheet is notable for being the first Israeli and the first privately funded lunar landing attempt, but it crashed after its main engine failed during final descent. Chandrayaan-2 also attempted a soft landing, but its Vikram lander suffered from a rough breaking phase and crashed from an altitude of 2km from the moon’s surface.

Now, India has successfully demonstrated its soft landing and planetary surface exploration capability. This capability, coupled with the Standard Refuelling and Docking technology and the Smart Space Robot technology, will enable future interplanetary science missions and even bring back samples from such missions. The soft landing capability will also give valuable insights to the Indian missile defence programme and the reusable launch vehicle programme, which, in turn, can help reduce the cost of future launches.

Moon science!

From a scientific perspective, the Chandrayaan missions have made significant contributions to humanity’s shared understanding of the moon. The Chandrayaan-1 mission helped confirm the presence of water ice on the moon and validate the hypothesis that the moon was once completely molten. The Chandrayaan-2 mission helped detect sub-surface water ice in the permanently shadowed regions of the moon, and estimate the lunar crust shortening.

Chandrayaan-3 will build on the laurels of its predecessors, carrying seven science payloads across its three modules. The propulsion module carries an experimental payload to study the spectro-polarimetric signatures of earth’s atmosphere and develop a benchmark for future characterisation of habitable zone extra-solar planets.

The lander module carries multiple payloads that will greatly improve our understanding of the lunar surface. This includes a Langmuir probe to the density of ions and electrons near the lunar surface, an experiment to study the thermal properties of the lunar surface, and an instrument to measure lunar seismic activity (also called moonquakes).

The rover module carries two payloads that will help us derive the chemical composition of the lunar surface and identify elemental composition of lunar rocks and soil. The science outcomes of these experiments will greatly improve India’s, and the world’s, understanding of the moon.

How does it help?

Although impressed with this scientific feat, one might wonder how all this helps India and its citizens. To answer that, I suggest one first ask oneself: Has one ever taken a photo using a mobile camera? Ever listened to music wirelessly? Worn sports shoes? Eaten instant food? Had filtered water or air? Used a computer mouse? Used any software? All of these things were made possible by technology that was originally developed for space missions.

Moreover, the Indian space programme, since its inception, has been guided by Dr Vikram Sarabhai’s vision: “We must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society.” In that very manner, the technologies and experiments on Chandrayaan-3 will translate into strategic tools and commercial products. For example, the technology used in making the rover module can be modified to be used for search and rescue operations in disasters like landslides, avalanches, and earthquakes, and then commercialised to be used as autonomous rovers for maintaining industrial agriculture and monitoring infrastructure like pipelines.

32-ISRO-chairman-S-Somanath Proud moment: ISRO chairman S. Somanath (fourth from right) and colleagues celebrate the successful landing of Chandrayaan-3 on the moon at ISRO’s telemetry, tracking and command network facility in Bengaluru | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

In addition to societal benefits, advancements in space technology also give a boost to India’s strategic capabilities. Synthetic Aperture Radars (SARs), which were developed for satellite-based earth observation, have enabled the nation to keep a watchful eye on sensitive regions even during night-time. The electronic sensors developed for tracking satellites and other navigational purposes have been crucial for developing India’s ELINT (electronic intelligence) capabilities.

Similarly, the Chandrayaan-3 mission will enable a range of technologies for strategic applications. For example, the rover module can be modified to serve as a reconnaissance tool for border regions or militarised regions. And the lander module’s technology can be reused in developing future generations of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft designed for naval applications.

What comes next?

While this achievement fills me with pride, I am also filled with excitement at the future of space exploration from India. In particular, the Gaganyaan missions, which will showcase India’s human spaceflight capabilities, are an important milestone. The upcoming missions include the test vehicle and unmanned flight, which will be followed by the first crewed flight of Gaganyaan.

The Gaganyaan mission will open a new paradigm for space research including novel fields like zero gravity additive manufacturing (3D printing) and protein crystallisation (Engineered proteins are used to treat cancer, but they need to be delivered in large quantities intravenously to be effective. Larger crystals of proteins can be developed more efficiently in space because of lack of gravity. Larger protein crystals mean higher concentration, which means the same dose of a few hours of IV in a simple injection). This technology will also be the foundation for India’s manned mission to the moon, and eventually for planetary habitation. Simultaneously, there is an increasing interest in space tourism which can give way to private space parks, spurring a new range of economic activities. The convergence of such space parks with smart space robots will give rise to in-orbit manufacturing hubs, and subsequent convergence with space tugs (the space equivalent of shipping vehicles) will enable space mining. These developments will be crucial to manage the resource scarcity challenges faced today.

Another promising area of development is the convergence of space technologies with quantum technologies, which can enable Quantum Communication Satellite Networks that can be expanded into interplanetary networks. Such networks will be indispensable to future generations as they boldly go where no human has gone.

This is the way!

A few decades ago, such ideas would be considered impossible sci-fi dreams. And yet things are only impossible until they are not. The Chandrayaan-3 soft landing has turned these dreams into plausible and achievable projects. With the rising interest in space, the unlocking of the space sector to private participation, and the creation of an Indian space policy, the conditions are ripe for launching India as the leader of the NewSpace movement.

This movement has already spurred the formation of more than 500 space-tech startups, MSMEs, and industries working on new generation launch vehicles, green propulsion, satellite manufacturing, cubesat and smallsat bus development and remote sensing. India needs to accelerate these innovators by supporting the development of critical space technologies. Towards this, India should identify companies for the commercial lunar payload services (CLPS) programme so that they can access the underlying US supply chains, utilising the strategic trade authorisation (STA-1) exception.

Similarly, India needs to establish partnerships with other countries with established or growing space programmes, such that they enable focused industry partnerships and technology development that support the priorities and objectives of the Indian space programme. This is the way for India to become a global hub of the NewSpace economy.

Saraswat is member of NITI Aayog and former director general of the Defence Research and Development Organisation.