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Seven things driving India to the moon and Mars

September 5, 2019

The moon is only one of India's space ambitions. Those range from telecoms to telemedicine, remote sensing to rockets, and planetary science. Here's seven of India's off-planet targets.

India's Satellite Launch Vehicle blasts off carrying Chandrayaan-2 from the Satish Dhawan space centre at Sriharikota
Image: Reuters/Indian Space Research Organisation

When China announced it was sending a space probe to the dark side of the moon — the bit we cannot see from Earth — it came as no surprise.  

Sure, the Americans, Europeans, Russians and Japanese like to think of themselves as the major players in space. 

But given the homegrown strides that China has made in other areas of science and technology (the good, the bad and the ugly), why shouldn't the Chinese try their hand at the moon?

After all, no one else was there, not since that last American moon landing in 1972. Plus, it was a keen political statement. Same as those Apollo missions.

And the same goes again for India's ambitions in space.

On July 22, India launched its Chandrayaan-2 mission to the moon. It was five months to the day after Israel's privately-funded Beresheet mission — which crashed.

India's previous moon mission, Chandrayaan-1, involved an impact probe that intentionally "crashed" — and was a success. The Indian Space Agency's (ISRO) short history is matter of fact: "…crashes near the lunar South Pole — confirms presence of water molecules on moon's surface." 

But that's ancient history…

Aside from India's Chandrayaan-2 mission, the future of its space program has at least some potential to feed into global research and knowledge about this planet.  

1. Rockets

The USA and others rely heavily on commercially built and owned launch vehicles, such as the SpaceX fleet. Both India and China build their own and sprinkle them with a certain amount of pride.

Chandrayaan-2 was launched on India's own Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark-III (GSLV Mk-III). It's India's most powerful launcher, capable of carrying 4-ton satellites into Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO). It's taller than a Russian Soyuz, and with it's 43.4 meters (142 feet) just one meter shorter than the French-made Ariane 5 — two of Europe's favorites. China's Long March 5 is 57 meters (187 feet) tall.

But size isn't always everything! Some of today's best rockets are tiny by comparison, like the Electron, 17 meter tall and built by the US-company Rocket Lab. And India has a new equivalent in that size bracket, the  Small Satellite Launch Vehicle. 

India's Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk III-M1 blasts off carrying Chandrayaan-2
India developed its own launch vehicle Mk III-M1Image: Reuters/P. Ravikumar

2. Disaster Warning System

India runs a multipurpose satellite system. It services telecommunications, television broadcasting, meteorology, disaster warning and search and rescue missions.

The Indian Remote Sensing Satellite System (IRS), meanwhile, has been up since 1988. By 2017, the ISRO was calling IRS the world's largest constellation of remote sensing, or Earth Observation, satellites. 

It helps monitor natural resources, run ocean and atmospheric studies, cartography, and contributes to land and water management. 

Data from IRS is also used in urban development, mineral prospecting, drought and flood forecasting. 

Indians use a rubber boat to move past a flooded road after heavy rainfall in Ahmadabad
The government in New Delhi hopes that satellite systems will improve natural disaster management.Image: picture- alliance/AP Photo/A. Solanki

3. Tele-education and telemedicine

The same fleet of satellites is used for distance education. India hopes to provide learning opportunities for people in remote regions, with a form of multimedia and interactive classrooms. That could be via TV and radio broadcasts, video chats and online courses.

Telemedicine uses the same principles to deliver medical advice and health-related services to people in remote areas, far from urban hospitals, for instance.

4. Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi renamed India's satellite positioning system Navigation with Indian Constellation (NavIC) in 2016. While it's shorter, it's not much snappier. But it is in homage to "boatmen" of old, said Modi, who used the stars to navigate their way.

And the idea is clear: To provide India with its own form of GPS.

With one large caveat: It's not global.

As with Europe's Galileo satellite positioning system, India wants to reduce its reliance on America's Global Positioning System. GPS was originally a military installation. The best positioning data is still reserved for the US military. And the fear — no matter how real or not — is that America can switch off GPS at any time. As it has in recent war scenarios.

That's not just an irritation for people who have lost their way to the supermarket, but potentially disastrous for civil aviation and a whole host of mobile technologies.

NavIC claims to offer positioning accuracy of better than 20 meters. And it reaches 1500 kilometers (932 miles) beyond India's borders. Modi says members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation are welcome to use it, too.   

A man watches Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's address to the nation on a local news channel in New Delhi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to promote India as military space powerImage: Getty Images/AFP/P. Singh

5. Space capsule Recovery Experiment (SRE-1)

In 2007, India launched SRE-1, a capsule that performed experiments in microgravity. Once the experiments were completed, the capsule deorbited and landed in the Bay of Bengal, where it was recovered.

ISRO says the capsules form the basis of future reusable launch vehicles.

6. Space science

India has a track record in space science, not least with the Chandrayaan-1 mission in 2008 and 2009. Twelve years earlier it launched IRS-P3, an Earth Observation mission, which carried remote sensing equipment built by the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

Then there was the aforementioned Chandrayaan-1, which, the ISRO says, "conclusively found the presence of water molecules on the moon." NASA confirmed the discovery in 2018.

In 2011, the ISRO launched Youthsat, a scientific satellite, carrying Indian and Russian payloads for solar and atmospheric studies.

What Chandrayaan-2 will find at the South Pole is anyone's guess. But scientists are hoping for more evidence of water.

Finally, let's not forget…

7. India on Mars

The Mars Orbiter Mission, or MOM for short, is India's first expedition into interplanetary space.

It was launched in 2013 on an incredibly short schedule of mere months. "Once India decided to go to Mars, [it] had no time to lose," says the ISRO. It didn't want to have to wait for the next launch window 780 days away in 2016, or in 2018 after that.  

Since reaching its Martian orbit in 2014, MOM has delivered close-up images of the Red Planet and data on Martian mineralogy and its atmosphere.

All this goes to show it is long time we changed our focus from NASA and ESA to incorporate all the world's spacefaring nations. Even Israel, which suffered that fatal Beresheet landing, is coming back for more. The Weizmann Institute of Science and the Israel Space Agency just recently announced they were heading an international project that aims to seek out cosmic explosions and black holes.

So, this field is now wide open. 

DW Zulfikar Abbany
Zulfikar Abbany Senior editor fascinated by space, AI and the mind, and how science touches people