Chandrayaan 3 going through tests, ISRO will attempt a controlled soft landing of the Chandrayaan-3 lander module, holding a rover, at 5:45 pm. Image: Courtesy ISRO
By around 6 pm local time, India could become only the fourth nation to have developed the technology to gently land a spacecraft on the Moon.
So far, Chandrayaan-3’s journey, followed by millions not only in India, but around the world, has brought a nation’s hopes and aspirations to as close as 25 km from the lunar surface. A successful soft landing would be a giant leap for India’s spacefaring prowess and its self-effacing scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
“It will be a big boost, you know,” BR Guruprasad, a space-scientist-turned-science-writer-and-broadcaster, summed it up, speaking to Forbes India on July 14, after Isro’s LVM3-M4 rocket made a flawless takeoff from the Satish Dhawan spaceport in Sriharikota, carrying a propulsion module, a lander and a rover within it.
On the day that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to meet his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the 15th BRICS summit in South Africa, much is riding on Chandrayaan-3.
“Now, if the meeting were to take place, it could well be tomorrow, August 23, when India's moon landing is due. And if that happens tomorrow, it will have double significance,” Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia, distinguished fellow, foreign policy studies, at Gateway House and former high commissioner of India to South Africa, told Forbes India in an interview on August 22.
From soft power and prestige on the international stage to the stamp of legitimacy like nothing else in the past for India’s space capabilities, a successful landing today would be the culmination of a saga that’s been 24 years in the making, since the idea of an Indian scientific mission to the Moon was first mooted at the Indian Academy of Sciences in 1999.
Since then, Chandrayaan-1, in October 2008, which included a “Moon impact probe”, was a successful mission, which even discovered the presence of water on the Moon. And Chandrayaan-2, in September 2019, was a heartbreaking miss for Isro’s scientists when the lander module crashed on to the lunar surface, while the orbiter part of that mission was a success. It has a life of around 7.5 years and continues to send scientific data to Earth.
Chandrayaan-3 has already made it past the stage where it became the third successful insertion of an Indian spacecraft into a lunar orbit, according to an Isro update on August 5. At its closest, the lander module, which holds the rover inside it, is only 25 km from the surface of the Moon now. A controlled descent is to start at 5.45 p.m. local time in India, according to Isro.
The lander will be manoeuvered to touch down in the South Polar region of the moon in the southern hemisphere, Guruprasad explained. Not at the poles themselves but in the polar area around 70 degrees south latitude, he added.
The next step is for the rover, a small six-wheeled robotic vehicle, to trundle out on a ramp and start roving the surface of the moon. Both the lander and the rover are expected to be active for about two weeks. Then there will be a long lunar night of about two weeks, and Isro’s scientists have some hopes of being able to contact them again, he says.
“The health of Chandrayaan-3 is normal,” Isro said in the August 5 update. The spacecraft is being continuously monitored from the Mission Operations Complex (MOX) at ISRO Telemetry, Tracking, and Command Network (ISTRAC), the Indian Deep Space Network (IDSN) antenna at Byalalu, near Bengaluru, with the support from the European Space Agency and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Deep space antenna.
As to the propulsion module, from which the lander separated on August 17, it will continue to circle the moon. “It will take a careful look at the Earth and the way Earth reflects light,” Guruprasad says. This is one of the ways in which scientists can find clues about life on other planets, he explains.
There are some 5,000 planets discovered so far around other stars in just our Milky Way galaxy itself, he points out. A deep understanding of how the Earth and its atmosphere reflects light will help unearth clues about the potential for life on other planets by studying how they reflect light, he says.
$100 billion potential
Chandrayaan-3’s moon landing will also set the stage for the next stage of growth for the country’s space industry as the government of India has made a concerted effort to open it up to private enterprises and startups over the last few years.
The global space industry is undergoing an important shift, from the traditional government-led programmes to a combination of public organisations and private enterprises, Arthur D Little (ADL), a multinational management consultancy, noted in a recent report on India’s space sector.
The nascent spacetech startup landscape in India, helped by the country’s liberalised space economy rules and supported by Isro, is an example of this shift. And, with the right initiatives, India could tap this shift to go from a $8 billion space economy to $100 billion by 2040, according to ADL’s report, titled ‘India in Space: A $100 billion Industry by 2040’.
Success would mean a doubling of the space industry’s contribution to India’s GDP, from the current 0.25 percent to 0.5 percent by 2040 with a potential creation of more than 3 million additional jobs in the country, according to ADL.
In June, India also joined the Artemis Accords, a multilateral space initiative led by the US with the initial objective of sending humans back to the Moon.
As more countries look to tap the potential of space exploration, India is in an advantageous position to offer its expertise around the world, Narayan Prasad, co-founder and COO of Satsearch, a space industry marketplace provider, and co-founder of Spaceport SARABHAI, an Indian space economy think tank, told Forbes India in a recent interview.
Overall, India can play a bigger role in international efforts to go to the Moon and beyond. “More robotic spacecraft have to be launched to pave the way for future lunar missions, with the objective of staying there permanently,” Guruprasad says. “And to use the Moon as a springboard for further exploration of deep space.”
And yes, there will be a Chandrayaan-4, which is being planned for between 2026 and 2028, in partnership with Japan.