India’s accomplishments in space are getting more impressive

A view of India's Vikram lander taken Wednesday from the Pragyan rover.
Enlarge / A view of India’s Vikram lander taken Wednesday from the Pragyan rover.

It’s been more than a week since India’s Chandrayaan 3 mission landed on the Moon, and it’s a good time to assess where the world’s most populous nation stands relative to other global other space powers.

The successful arrival of the Chandrayaan 3 mission’s Vikram lander on the Moon made India the first country besides China to achieve a soft landing on the lunar surface since 1976, following a series of failed landings by private organizations and India itself four years ago. And it made India just the fourth nation overall to achieve this feat.

Since the landing of Chandrayaan 3 on August 23, India has released some early findings from the lander and its mobile rover, named Pragyan, along with photos of the vehicles exploring the Moon’s alien charcoal-color landscape.

The Moon landing is just the latest in a string of successes in space for India, which has a thriving rocket program with a family of four launch vehicles, its own regional satellite navigation network, and nearly 10 years ago, sent an orbiter to Mars. If India can notch another success in its space program in the next few years, the country could become the fourth nation capable of sending its astronauts into low-Earth orbit.

India is still well behind the space programs of the United States and China, but one could argue India has moved closer to Europe and Russia, and could be on par with Japan when you take into account several factors: access to space, space exploration, military space projects, and applications like communications, navigation, and remote sensing from orbit.

Among the space powers considered here, India has the lowest human development index, a measure of social factors such as quality of life, income, and education. But its space program is a point of national pride, and Narendra Modi, India’s nationalist prime minister, has made a point to associate himself with Indian successes in space.

Those successes have come on a shoestring budget. The Indian government this year is allocating $1.52 billion to space efforts, and India developed and launched Chandrayaan 3 for less than $100 million, lower than the cost of many blockbuster Hollywood films.

“I’ve described India as a sleeping giant and one that is quickly awakening,” said Mike Gold, an attorney and space industry official who previously led NASA’s space policy office. “India is absolutely vital to global space development … since the country is active with lunar programs, Martian programs, and now even human spaceflight.”

Since the landing of Chandrayaan 3, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)—India’s space agency—has released a handful of images, including a black-and-white shot of the stationary SUV-size Vikram lander taken by the Pragyan rover. There’s also a video, shown below, of the Pragyan rover rolling down the ramp from the Vikram lander in the hours after arriving on the Moon on August 23.

So far, ISRO hasn’t been releasing all of the pictures taken by the rover and lander on the Moon, and the Indian space agency hasn’t posted many images on its website, preferring to share them on social media. Let’s hope Indian officials develop a better way of releasing high-resolution imagery from Chandrayaan 3 and future deep space probes.

But it’s always exciting to see a place human eyes have never seen before, and India’s triumph with Chandrayaan 3 is worth celebrating.

In a visit with Indian space scientists in Bangalore last week, Modi announced the Chandrayaan 3 landing site would be named Shiv Shakti Point, a reference to Shiva, a principal deity in Hinduism, and Shakti, which honors the role of women scientists on the mission.

The Vikram lander and Pragyan rover settled onto a landing site closer to the Moon’s south pole than any previous lunar lander. Early science results from the mission include the detection of a seismic “event” on the Moon, and the first measurements of the plasma environment near the lunar surface close to the south pole.

“These quantitative measurements potentially assist in mitigating the noise that lunar plasma introduces into radio wave communication. Also, they could contribute to the enhanced designs for upcoming lunar visitors,” ISRO said.

Instruments on the rover have detected sulfur in the lunar crust at the landing site. “This finding … compels scientists to develop fresh explanations for the source of sulfur in the area,” ISRO said, adding that the element could be intrinsic to the landing site, or may have been produced by an ancient volcanic eruption or an asteroid or cometary impact.

The Times of India reported this week that Indian engineers are increasingly optimistic that the Vikram lander and Pragyan rover could wake up and continue their mission after the upcoming two-week-long lunar night. When the Sun sets at the landing site next week, the two vehicles will hibernate as temperatures plummet to minus 333° Fahrenheit (minus 203° Celsius).

The original design life of the lander and rover was to operate for one lunar day, or 14 Earth days, but assuming electronics and batteries hold up to the frigid conditions, there’s a chance the vehicles will automatically wake up when rays of sunlight again fall on their solar panels in mid-September.

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