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)

(Continued from page 3)

The weather is currently looking a lot better. It rained very heavily here yesterday, creating large, deep puddles in the parking lot to go with the high humidity and heat. The rain is not as much a concern for launch as the possibility of lightning. Goswami told me that the meteorologists are measuring continuously the electrical potential of the cloud cover. Pictures of the launch pad at SHAR show it to be surrounded by four very large red metal towers, all designed to serve as giant “lightning rods” to protect the vehicle.

We’re waiting around now to hear the status of the mission. We’ll probably be briefed at dinner tonight, which will be held in the dining hall nearby. I’ve found out that cameras are banned from SHAR, so I won’t be taking any pictures of the launch. But it will be intensely photographed by ISRO personnel.


Through the fog, into the fog (October 21, 8:00 a.m.)

I’m sitting in a hotel room in Chennai, India, attempting to recover from my jet lag. Houston to India is a 26-hour trip (one way) and although there’s plenty of time to snooze, I never sleep well on planes. Through my brain-fog, I have CNN International on in the room. At the top of the hour, there’s a detailed report on the Chandrayaan-1 mission to the Moon, now less than 24 hours away from launch. The report describes the mission as well as ISRO’s (the Indian space agency’s) four-year effort to build the spacecraft, and has interviews with key mission personnel, including Mylswamy Annadurai, the mission director, with whom I have formed a close friendship during the last few years. The news item is enthusiastic and thorough.

This matches my previous experience in India closely—the Indian people are genuinely excited about going to the Moon. I’ve talked to porters, room cleaners, taxi drivers, airport security people and many others during my seven trips here over the past four years. When they find out that I’m here to work on the Chandrayaan mission, they are not only very interested, but very excited and well informed—about space, the Moon, and India’s first journey into the solar system.

Over the past 50 months, we’ve designed and built our instrument, the Mini-SAR, which will fly to the Moon tomorrow on an Indian PSLV rocket. Mini-SAR is an imaging radar designed to map the poles of the Moon. Because radar provides its own illumination, Mini-SAR will map the dark areas near the lunar poles and search for evidence of the presence of water ice. This has been a controversial subject for the last decade. Now, we’re going to collect information on these deposits by mapping them from an instrument in lunar orbit, a first in the exploration of the Moon.

So now I sit here in Chennai, gazing out my hotel window into a gray, drizzly day. I hope the weather is better just up the coast, but the monsoon is with us and rain is a fact of life for tropical India for the next six months. ISRO is determined to get the mission on its way to the Moon (having been delayed several times), but they do have minimum launch conditions. I don’t know what they are, but I hope to find out this afternoon, as we head up the coast to the ISRO launch site, SHAR, in Sriharikota, about 80 kilometers from Chennai. Less than 24 hours—and counting!


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus