India Aims for the Moon

A US scientist reports from the scene of India’s first lunar launch.

The PSLV rocket that launched Chandrayaan-1, on its way to the pad. (ISRO)

Paul Spudis, a Planetary Institute in Houston, is blogging the launch of India’s first lunar mission, Chandrayaan-1, which lifted off early Wednesday morning from India’s east coast.

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On its way (October 23, 4:00 a.m.)

After the launch, we all come back to the guesthouse for a late breakfast and celebration. Team Chandrayaan, the dedicated group of ISRO scientists and engineers who have worked on this mission, are all excited and jocular. There was tremendous pressure on them to deliver this mission, and with a perfect launch they are well along the road to success. I run into Madhavan Nair, the head of the Indian Space Agency. He is clearly tired, but very happy to have a “perfect” launch under his belt. I offer my congratulations and express our team’s gratitude for giving us a good start to the mission. For the first time, I also meet Chandra Dathan, the SHAR center director. He is all smiles and is clearly basking in the exultation of the moment. We know that the mission has only begun, but having a picture perfect launch has created a success vibe. Good karma for a space mission is always welcome.

After lunch, we make the long drive back from SHAR to Chennai. I am exhausted, having never really caught up on sleep since arriving two days earlier. But knowing that Chandrayaan is successfully on its way to the Moon is a great feeling. That evening, the Mini-SAR team celebrates the day’s events with a few gin and tonics, the one undeniable contribution to western civilization by the departed British Raj. (They contain quinine—anti-malarial, don’t you know.)

The print and electronic media are filled with stories on Chandrayaan. Few space missions get this level of attention in America. The launch and orbit inject was magnificent, and the stories cover the mission objectives, spacecraft instruments, and flight profile. While at SHAR, I was interviewed by two different Indian television networks. One of our team members, Bill Marinelli of NASA, tells me that one of those interviews just aired, although he caught only the end of it. The press coverage is overwhelming, positive and appears to be demand-driven, not an attempt to impose or simulate an excitement that doesn’t really exist. Today, all of India is proud of its space program. It has the right to be.

Back at the hotel in Chennai, we prepare to leave India and fly back home late that evening. We have lots of work ahead of us before Chandrayaan gets to the Moon next month. Next week, we’ll have our first opportunity to turn on our instrument, point the antenna at the Earth and calibrate it using the large radiotelescopes at Greenbank, West Virginia and the giant hole-in-the-ground dish at Arecibo in Puerto Rico. We will carefully map out the signal pattern of the Mini-SAR antenna and test its performance in space. We will then use these calibration tests to learn how to extract the maximum amount of knowledge from our data.

So far, so good. Now, we begin to look forward to the Moon.


Fire, thunder and water (October 22, 8:15 a.m.)

As the voice over the loudspeaker counts below 20 seconds, I strain my eyes to look out over the coastal scrub between me and the gleaming white monument in the distance. As the count reaches below 5 seconds, I first see the bright orange glow of rocket ignition. It is surprising, even though I expected to see it. In the demi-light of early morning, it is startling. As the count reaches zero, I finally see the entire vehicle—until now I could only view the upper two-thirds. It’s a beautiful white needle, with a huge ball of orange flame beneath it.


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