The country’s latest lunar mission, Chandrayaan-2, which means “moon vehicle” in Sanskrit, took off from the Satish Dhawan Space Center at Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh state at 2:43 p.m., Monday local time (5:13 am ET).
The Chandrayaan-2, which weighs 3.8 tons and carries 13 payloads, has three elements — lunar orbiter, lander and rover, all developed by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).
It will travel for two months, before positioning itself in a circular orbit 62 miles (100km) above the moon’s surface. From there, the lander — named Vikram after the pioneer of the Indian space program Vikram Sarabhai — will separate from the main vessel and gently land on the moon’s surface near its South Pole.
A robotic rover named Pragyan (meaning “wisdom”) will then deploy and spend one lunar day, or 14 Earth days, collecting mineral and chemical samples from the moon’s surface for remote scientific analysis.
Over the next year, the orbiter will map the lunar surface and study the outer atmosphere of the moon.
Kailasavadivoo Sivan, ISRO chairman, said in June that the last 15 minutes of the landing “are going to be the most terrifying moments for us.”
As well as coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, the launch comes as other space agencies revisit the idea of sending humans to the moon and beyond — NASA has touted a bold plan to return American astronauts to the moon by 2024.
India’s space ambitions
This mission is significant for India — the country wants to become a major space player and put Indian astronauts in space by 2022.
“India wants to show, especially since Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi came into office, that India is a major power, and that India has to be treated as a major Indo-Pacific power,” said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, head of the nuclear and space policy initiative at the Observer Research Foundation.
Chandrayaan-1, India’s maiden lunar mission, discovered water molecules on the surface of the moon. As part of that mission, an impact probe crashed into the moon’s south polar region in a controlled landing.
India’s attempted soft-landing is a far greater technical challenge than the controlled crash of Chandrayaan-1.
The two Chandrayaan missions are a precursor to Chandrayaan-3, which is scheduled to make a return mission to the moon in 2023-2024.
In 2014, India became the first Asian nation to reach the Red Planet, when it put the Mangalyaan probe into orbit around Mars. The Mars Orbiter Mission famously cost $74 million — less than the $100 million than Hollywood spent making space thriller “Gravity.”
Modi said that operation, called Mission Shakti — which stands for “power” in Hindi — would defend the country’s interests in space. The Foreign Ministry said that India had “no intention of entering into an arms race in outer space.”
ISRO chairman Sivan also announced in June that India was planning to set up an independent space station by 2030. Currently, the only space station available for expedition crews is the International Space Station (ISS) a joint project, which several countries participate in.
India’s space agency has also proposed sending an orbiter to Venus by 2023.
Some say India’s ambitious goals are unrealistic.
“ISRO also has a capacity deficit, limited human and financial resources, so how will those be allocated between the space station and the astronauts program?” asked Rajagopalan. “Some of these things are driven towards nationalistic sentiments, pride and prestige but some are not going to be achievable.”
Asia space race
China, India’s great regional rival for superpower status, is the most rapidly accelerating space power and, under President Xi Jinping’s leadership, has invested billions in building up its space program.