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How Chandrayaan 2 will add more teeth to ISRO’s capabilities

In the early 1970s, Vikram Sarabhai had asked a bunch of young engineers, fresh out of college, to make a satellite in just two and a half years. Their offices were unremarkable: six asbestos sheds in Peenya, then a new industrial township off the city of Bangalore. No one thought it was possible to build satellites so quickly, except for the engineers at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and their leader UR Rao. The satellite went up on time from a Soviet cosmodrome. It had payloads on x-ray astronomy, then an emerging subject in science.

This satellite, Aryabhatta, was ISRO’s first satellite. Sarabhai and UR Rao were cosmic ray physicists and were keen on using space technology for scientific research. As ISRO learned to make more complex satellites, ISRO began focusing on communication and remote sensing, on societal needs than scientific research. Scientific research shrank to become a small unit in the organization.

Science never left the organisation fully, and scientific programmes started growing more than a decade ago. In the last five years, it has made a vigorous comeback in ISRO through planetary exploration and astronomy missions. “Future generations will depend on planetary missions,” said ISRO chairman K Sivan at a press conference on Wednesday.

Next month, on July 15 or 16, ISRO’s Chandrayaan 2 spacecraft will lift off from Sriharikota on a 52-day trip to the moon. After it lands near the south pole of the moon, it will do mineral and water prospecting on the earth’s natural satellite. After the moon mission, ISRO is planning a series of increasingly sophisticated interplanetary missions: to the Sun, to Venus, another trip to Mars, and a third trip to the moon. As part of these missions, ISRO will also develop strategic technology that are critical in the twenty-first century. “The difference between science missions and other satellites is like the difference between an ordinary submarine and deepsea exploration,” says assistant professor at IIT Bombay, who is developing instrumentation for future astronomy missions. “Science requires you to push the boundaries.”

The current moon mission is testing out some technologies for the first time, the most critical of which is the ability to soft-land on the moon. Only three countries have landed softly on the moon: Soviet Union, United States, and China. Soviet Union was the first to land on the moon, in 1966. Although this landing was done more than five decades ago, descending and landing softly on the moon is still a technically challenging task. “These 15 minutes are the most terrifying moments of the mission,” said Sivan.

Soft-landing is a tricky business for several reasons. One, the acceptability of failure is very low in current times. In the 1960s and 1970s, when the global space programmes were in their early stages, people and governments accepted failures far more often. Second, although the physics remains the same, the technology for soft-landing has improved dramatically. With improvements in technology, possibilities for manoeuvre have also increased for space missions.

When the Soviets landed on the moon in the 1960s, it was a simple drop of a pressurized capsule that bounced on inf lated airbags. Current missions have to land far more precisely. During ISRO’s landing, for example, the lander will survey moon’s topography as it descends and adjust its path to land on the most optimal spot. Since the technology for such adjustment is available, ISRO does not want to make the lander unusable because it landed on a stone.

The entire descent is automated, and once the process starts ISRO engineers can only sit and watch. Manual control has its dangers. Two months ago, the Israeli firm SpaceIL’s Beresheet spacecraft crashed as it tried to land softly. It was supposed to compete for the Google X Prize, but had missed the deadline like all other participants, including India’s TeamIndus. Beresheet’s descent was not automated, and the delays in communication as it descended is supposed to be the reason for the crash.

The technology for interplanetary missions had been developed in stages over several decades in several laboratories of ISRO. The main spacecraft, including the structure and software, is developed in the U R Rao (URSC) satellite centre in Bangalore. The cameras and sensors are developed at the Laboratory for Electro-optical Systems (LEOS), also in Bangalore. The instruments are developed at the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) and the Space Applications Centre in Ahmedabad.

The Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) develops the propulsion systems, and also the rocket that will launch the spacecraft. For the moon mission, the communication will be handled with assistance from NASA’s deep space network. Chandrayaan 2 will carry a small payload from NASA: a laser prospector array that will help measure distances accurately.

After the spacecraft lands, the rover will go out and survey the surface till it reaches a distance of 500 metres. The lander and the rover will investigate the physical and thermal properties of the lunar surface and the atmospheric plasma around the moon. The rover will examine the mineral composition of the lunar soil.

Finding the mineral composition of the moon is one of the most important aims of the mission. Helium-3 is supposed to be abundant on the moon, and this substance could be the basis of energy in the future. Which is why the mission is as strategic as it is scientific.

Science flourishes where there is freedom of thought, says Nobel laureate Venki Ramakrishnan

BENGALURU: Science prospers where there is freedom of thought and minimal interference by the government, said UK based Nobel prize winning biologist Venkataraman “Venki” Ramakrishnan.

“I personally believe that science flourishes where there is a real freedom of thought, opinion and minimal ideological interference. Although the autonomy of science remains an open question,” he said in an interactive session on “Science and Society” at Bangalore International Centre on Wednesday.

He was responding to a question on preserving the sanctity of science in times of volatility in the world. Ramakrishnan gave examples of Hitler’s Germany and Soviet Union to delineate how the government’s ideological interference had destroyed the science in the past. “Nazis practically destroyed German science and it took 50 years for the country to recover. As a result of the Soviet Union government’s opposition to genetics, Soviet Biology lagged behind by several decades.” He said China was an exception as the country is making great advances in science despite curbs on freedom of speech and opinion.

India, the professor said, despite probably being the only country with a Constitution that emphasises on developing scientific temperament, has not done enough in the research front. “Oddly, India’s spending in terms of GDP on science and technology is quite less. The country’s goals and actions are not clearly aligned. The GDP is growing, but not as fast,” he observed.

Ramakrishnan highlighted the need for private sector investment in science research and development in India. “A combination of factors have led to inadequate funding in science in India. Private sector funding is extremely low. If the private sector can match the typical 2:1 or 2:2 ratio, it will help,” the professor said.

In a word of caution to governments to allow autonomy in research and development, he said, the governments should only set priorities in funding, but they should not determine how to go about with those priorities. “No one has the knowledge about working on the priorities except for scientists in the field. Separation between the government, and the actual science, science infrastructure and establishment is quite important… to remove politics from science funding,” the scientist said.

( Originally published on Jan 15, 2020 )

China’s spacecraft takes off from moon with lunar samples

BEIJING: A Chinese spacecraft carrying the country’s first lunar samples has started its return journey from the moon, according to the country’s space authority.

China‘s Chang’e-5 probe, comprising an orbiter, a lander, an ascender, and a returner, was launched on November 24, and its lander-ascender combination touched down on the north of the Mons Rumker in Oceanus Procellarum, also known as the Ocean of Storms, on the near side of the moon on December 1.

After the samples were collected and sealed, the ascender of Chang’e-5 took off from the lunar surface on Thursday at 11:10 pm (Beijing Time), state-run Xinhua news agency reported, quoting an announcement from the China National Space Administration.

It represented the first-ever Chinese spacecraft to take off from an extra-terrestrial body.

An engine, after working for about six minutes, pushed the ascender to present lunar orbit, Xing Zhuoyi, a designer of the Chang’e-5 probe from China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) under the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation said.

Different from the ground take-off, the ascender could not rely on a launch tower system.

The lander acted as a temporary “launching pad,” which had touched down on the lunar surface quite stably, Xing said.

The Chinese spacecraft adopted two methods of moon sampling, including using drills to collect subsurface samples and grabbing samples on the surface with a robotic arm. It gathered perse samples at different sites.

The ascender is expected to complete the unmanned rendezvous and docking with the orbiter-returner in lunar orbit and the samples will be transferred to the returner, the report said.

When the geometric relationship between Earth and the moon is suitable, the orbiter will carry the returner back to Earth.

Before the take-off, a Chinese national flag unfurled from the lander-ascender combination, Xing said.

This is the first effort to bring samples from the moon in over 40 years.

The United States sent astronauts to the moon to collect samples. In the Soviet Union’s unmanned lunar sampling missions, the spacecraft took off from the moon and returned to Earth directly.

The soils obtained from the Moon by the Chinese spacecraft are expected to provide information about its geological evolution and offer insights into solar activities in the universe, according to the mission team.

Putin says US threats smack of Soviet Union’s fatal mistakes

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the United States was wrong to think that it is “powerful enough” to get away with threatening other countries, a mistake, he said, that led to the downfall of the former Soviet Union.

Putin made the comments during a press briefing late on Friday as he spoke about U.S. sanctions against Moscow, according to Russia’s news agency TASS.

He was speaking just days before a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden whose cabinet in April imposed a broad array of sanctions on Russia, including curbs to its sovereign debt market.

“We hear threats from the Congress, from other sources. It is all done within the context of the United States’ domestic political process,” Putin was quoted as saying.

“The people who do this, they probably assume that the United States has such economic, military and political might that it can get away with that. It is no big deal, that is what they think.”

Putin said such behaviour reminded him of the Soviet Union.

“The problem with empires is that they think they are powerful enough to make some mistakes. We will buy these (people), bully them, make a deal with them, give necklaces to them, threaten them with battleships. And this will solve all the problems. But problems accumulate. A moment comes when they cannot be solved anymore.”

Biden and Putin will meet in Geneva on June 16, the White House and the Kremlin have said, to discuss “the full range of pressing issues”, according to Washington.