Wednesday, October 8, 2008

India prepares to launch first unmanned moon mission: Chandrayaan-1

India is to launch its first unmanned mission to the Moon this month as it struggles to catch up with China in a 21st-century Asian version of the space race between the United States and Soviet Union.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) announced yesterday that it would fire a locally made rocket bearing the lunar spacecraft Chandrayaan-1 from a launchpad in southeastern India on October 22, weather permitting.

The launch could be delayed until October 26 if conditions are not right over the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, 63 miles (125km) from the city of Madras. It was planned originally for April, but was postponed repeatedly because of technical problems with the £47 million project, which involves several foreign countries, including the United States.

The 1.38tonne spacecraft will take approximately eight days to travel about 240,000 miles before reaching its final orbit 60 miles above the surface of the Moon, ISRO officials say.

It will then orbit for almost two years, using high-resolution remote sensing to compile a three-dimensional atlas of the Moon and analyse the composition of its surface, among other things.

It will also send a small impact probe to the surface.

Chandrayaan-1 will carry 11 payloads; five pieces of equipment from ISRO and six from foreign agencies, including Nasa and the European Space Agency. ISRO technicians will track the mission from a deep space network station in the village of Byalalu, about 25 miles from the southern city of Bangalore.

Critics say it is a waste of money for a country where 800 million out of a population of 1.1 billion live on less than $2 a day and where child malnutrition is on a par with that of sub-Saharan Africa. Advocates of India’s space programme, however, argue that ISRO makes money from commercial satellite launches and its scientific benefits have played a key role in the development of the country’s information technology industry.

They say that India is lagging far behind China, which completed its first manned space flight in 2003 and launched a lunar satellite in October last year. Last month a Chinese astronaut completed a 15-minute space walk for the first time.

ISRO, founded in 1969, is now aiming to put the first Indian into space by 2014 and to launch a manned lunar mission by 2020 – four years ahead of China’s target date. The Indian agency’s next step is to launch a second unmanned lunar mission – Chandrayaan-2 – in 2011, comprising an orbiting spacecraft, a lander and a Moon rover.

Gopal Raj, the author of a history of the Indian space programme, said ISRO’s timeframe was unrealistic, but hailed this month’s launch as a breakthrough, nonetheless. “For India, this is an important milestone,” he said. “If you want to do space exploration, the Moon is where you have to start.”

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