Chandrayaan-­3 : ISRO’s Success Story and the Road Ahead

In the wake of ISRO’s well-deserved celebration over the remarkable success of Chandrayaan-­3’s soft landing, it’s essential to shift our focus toward a broader perspective. While basking in the glory of this achievement, ISRO is simultaneously facing challenges that warrant attention. Beyond the applause lies a dual challenge: one, the higher expectations set by Chandrayaan-­3’s accomplishment, and two, the intricate web of upcoming missions and unresolved projects that demand ISRO’s formidable prowess.

Chandrayaan­-3’s Three Modules and Scientific Objectives

The Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft, weighing 3,900 kg, is composed of three distinct modules: the propulsion module, designed to propel it towards the moon; the lander module; and the rover module. Each of these modules is equipped with specific instruments, collectively aimed at conducting various scientific experiments. As the mission enters its active phase, these instruments are now operational, initiating their respective tasks.

Propulsion Module and SHAPE Instrument: Similar to Chandrayaan-2’s Orbiter, the propulsion module is in lunar orbit. This module houses an instrument known as “Spectro-polarimetry of HAbitable Planet Earth” (SHAPE). SHAPE’s function involves capturing light emitted from Earth and analyzing both its properties and the characteristics of its light waves. This initiative aims to create a distinctive profile or “fingerprint” of Earth’s attributes, allowing for comparisons with fingerprints of other exoplanets. The identification of matching fingerprints could potentially indicate the presence of life on those distant planets.

Lander Module’s Instruments: The lander module carries four instruments dedicated to investigating the thermal and seismic attributes of the moon. These instruments will provide insights into the moon’s internal properties and behavior.

Rover Module’s Instruments: The rover module is equipped with two instruments that specialize in analyzing the composition of lunar soil. Through this analysis, researchers intend to gain a better understanding of the minerals present on the moon’s surface.

All the data collected by the instruments on both the lander and the rover modules will be transmitted to the propulsion module, which will serve as a relay to transmit this valuable information back to Earth.

While Chandrayaan-3 encompasses an array of scientific objectives, its central goal is to successfully demonstrate a soft landing on the moon’s surface. The achievement of a controlled and precise landing technique holds paramount importance. The remaining scientific endeavors are subsidiary to this primary aspiration, marking a pivotal step in India’s lunar exploration endeavors.

Challenges and Upcoming Missions

Lagrange Points
Source: NASA/WMAP Science Team

As Chandrayaan-­3’s triumph invigorates the nation, the forthcoming Aditya L­1 mission stands as a testament to ISRO’s audacious goals. Scheduled for launch on September 2, this mission involves a highly complex task – positioning a space observatory 1.5 million km from Earth, nestled between our planet and the Sun. This unique vantage point, known as Lagrange­1, mandates precise orchestration to ensure the observatory’s stability amid gravitational pulls by celestial bodies. The challenges of this mission exemplify ISRO’s relentless pursuit of scientific excellence.

Gaganyaan, the subsequent endeavor slated for the end of September, takes the complexity to even greater heights. Testing an unmanned ‘crew module’ for its capacity to endure the intense heat generated by atmospheric friction during reentry, Gaganyaan poses significant technical hurdles. Both Aditya L­1 and Gaganyaan epitomize ISRO’s unyielding ambition in tackling increasingly demanding missions.

Unresolved Projects

Semi-Cryogenic Engine (SCE 200) Program: Among the myriad pathways to progress within ISRO’s roadmap for innovation, certain projects stand in waiting, awaiting their moment of realization. An exemplary case is the Semi-Cryogenic Engine (SCE 200) program, initiated with great promise in 2009, backed by a substantial budget of $230 million. This visionary initiative aimed to harness the immense potential of the SCE­200 engine, destined to propel the lower stages of the GSLV rocket, a cornerstone of India’s space aspirations.

Initially earmarked for completion by 2020, the SCE 200 program’s journey encountered unforeseen obstacles along the way. The first “hot test” milestone, crucial for gauging engine performance, was eventually achieved in July 2023, a delay attributed to a confluence of challenges, including the disruptive impact of the global pandemic and geopolitical tensions. This narrative underscores the intricate nature of space exploration, where even the best-laid plans can be subject to the vagaries of the world.

The ‘Methalox’ Engine: Within ISRO’s repository of transformative projects, the ‘methalox’ engine project looms as a beacon of innovation. Designed around the novel concept of utilizing both liquid methane and liquid oxygen as propellants, this initiative holds the promise of revolutionizing propulsion systems. A notable achievement in May was the successful cold test of the technology demonstrator—a 20-tonne engine, paving the way for a grander vision—a 100-tonne engine capable of propelling a behemoth rocket to loft payloads of up to 10 tonnes to geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO).

While progress is evident, the prolonged timelines underscore the complexity of translating innovative concepts into practical propulsion solutions. These challenges are emblematic of ISRO’s unwavering commitment to pushing the boundaries of possibility and its determination to navigate the intricate roadmaps of futuristic technologies.

Space Docking Experiment (SPADEX), an ambitious endeavor, aims to achieve the complex task of connecting two objects orbiting in space. Involving a target and a chaser, this experiment seeks to mate two satellites injected into different orbits. The intricacy of this operation underscores ISRO’s pioneering spirit in advancing space capabilities.

Equally tantalizing on ISRO’s roadmap is the Hypersonic Air­breathing Vehicle Assembly (HAVA). With a propulsion mechanism utilizing atmospheric oxygen as its propellant, HAVA promises to redefine atmospheric flight dynamics. The successful scramjet characterization flight in 2016 marked a notable milestone, setting the stage for HAVA’s potential contributions to future aerospace innovation. Yet, the full realization of this pioneering concept remains a horizon yet to be crossed, epitomizing the agency’s pursuit of the next frontier in aerospace technology.

Budgetary Constraints

A cornerstone of ISRO’s legacy has been achieving remarkable feats on modest budgets. However, when confronting an array of complex missions and projects, the adequacy of funding becomes paramount. While budgetary allocations to the Department of Space have increased, the need to balance frugality with ambitious undertakings becomes apparent.

As the Department’s budgetary allocations more than doubled over a decade, surpassing ₹12,000 crore, the figures don’t necessarily translate to substantial growth when adjusted for inflation. The essence lies in recognizing that while ISRO’s frugality is commendable, a more robust financial backbone is indispensable for embarking on visionary endeavors.

Future Prospects

Navigating the challenging terrain of space exploration mandates a balanced approach. While maintaining budgetary prudence is vital, ISRO’s future prospects rely on securing adequate funding for groundbreaking projects. The dichotomy between immediate mission success and investing in the future isn’t just financial—it’s a strategic decision for the nation’s space ambitions.

With ISRO’s demonstrated capacity for success, there’s an implicit understanding that a well-funded future can yield even greater achievements. Prioritizing futuristic projects is imperative, not only for the country’s scientific and technological advancement but also for inspiring the next generation of space enthusiasts.

Conclusion

Chandrayaan­-3’s triumph serves as a testament to ISRO’s potential when it dedicates itself to a mission. As we celebrate this accomplishment, it’s essential to recognize the uphill battles that lie ahead. The complexity of upcoming missions, the unresolved projects, and the demands for innovative excellence all paint a portrait of ISRO’s dual challenge.

While financial allocations have increased, the emphasis should not solely be on cost-effectiveness but on enabling groundbreaking exploration. ISRO’s journey is far from over; with each peak climbed, new heights beckon, demanding innovation, determination, and strategic investment. As we witness ISRO’s trajectory, it’s clear that there’s no room for cutting corners—the path to the stars requires steadfast commitment and a clear vision.

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