Tuesday, August 19, 2008

India has Big Plans for Lunar Exploration

India will send their first mission to the Moon in September. Chandrayaan-1 has been built and will be launched from Indian soil and sent on a mission to study the lunar surface. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) will use its highly successful Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) to get the lunar probe into space. This is an impressive mission for a small space agency, making huge strides in the exploration of space…

It seems like everybody is doing it these days. First, Russia did it (in 1959) by landing a probe on the lunar surface and taking pictures of the far side of the Moon. Then the Soviets put the first artificial lunar satellite into orbit in 1966. Not to be out done, President Kennedy had already begun the US quest to get man on the Moon, and in 1969 the superpower achieved that goal. For a long time it was only the two competitors in the Space Race who had visited the Moon, but in 1990, Japan joined the "Lunar Club" (with the Hiten spacecraft). Then in 1997 Hong Kong (China) succeeded in two flybys (HGS-1, a commercial satellite). Eventually, in 2006, the European SMART-1 space vehicle made it into lunar orbit. But since then, it's been China (with the Chang'e program) and Japan (with SELENE, or "Kaguya") who have been most active around the natural satellite.

And now there is a new kid on the block: India. One of the most populous nations in the world is pushing ahead with its own aspirations for lunar exploration. Although comparatively small, the Indian space agency ISRO was established in 1972 to develop space-based technologies in the aim of enriching the nation's economy. Until the early 1990's, India had to rely on Russia to launch payloads into space, but 1994 saw the first successful launch of the powerful Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), lifting domestic and commercial satellites into orbit. Now the PSLV will launch India's most valuable payload yet, the Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter and impactor. It is scheduled for launch on September 19th.

In a speech on India's 61st Independence Day from the historic Red Fort in Delhi, the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the Chandrayaan-1 mission "an important milestone" for the nation. However, although a date has been set for launch, some of the text seemed a little uncertain. "This year we hope to send an Indian spacecraft, Chandrayan, to the moon. It will be an important milestone in the development of our space programme," Singh said. Whether the "we hope" was accidental or whether the launch date is only tentative remains to be seen.

Regardless, the mission appears to be good to go, obviously a huge boost to national pride. "I want to see a modern India, imbued by a scientific temper, where the benefits of modern knowledge flow to all sections of society," he continued.

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