The Cold War was marked not just by an arms race and the growing threat of nuclear weapons. It was also a period a race to go to space.
The first milestone of this space race was achieved by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957, when they placed the world’s first artificial satellite Sputnik (Russian for “traveler”) into the Earth’s orbit of the Earth. Four months later, the Americans launched their own satellite — Explorer 1.
The second milestone in this space race came four years later on April 12, 1961, when Russia’s Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly in space. The Americans were not far behind, sending Alan Shepherd into space just 23 days later!
The third and decisive milestone of this race came on July 20, 1969, when humanity for the first time stepped beyond this planet. When Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin set foot on the moon — becoming the first humans to do so — the Americans finally defeated the Soviets in the space race.
The 1960s were certainly the boom era for space exploration. However, India was nowhere to be seen on this scientific map.
Nevertheless, without much fanfare, India kicked off its space programme in 1962 with the formation of the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR), which later became the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro).
In November 1963, India launched the first sounding rockets, carried often on bicycles and bullock carts, and assembled inside a church building at the Equatorial Rocket Launching Station in Thumba, Kerala. From a humble beginning with limited resources in the 1960s to launching a Mars probe that cost less than the budget of a Hollywood movie, Isro has come a long way.
CHANDRAYAAN-2 LAUNCH AND JOURNEY TO MOON
Another chapter in Isro’s journey started just two days after the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 mission that landed humans on the Moon. On July 22, 2019, Chandrayaan 2 set off on a 384,400-km journey towards the Moon.
Chandrayaan-2 is India’s second date with the moon and the mission comprises of three components – an orbiter, a lander and a rover. The orbiter and the lander, which houses the rover, were flown to space by the GSLV Mk-III rocket.
Once in space, the Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft performed a series of manoeuvres around the Earth and acquired the necessary momentum to slingshot into an orbit around the Moon.
This orbit kept getting lower and lower and on September 2, the lander ‘Vikram’ detached itself from the orbiter to ready itself for making a soft landing near the south pole of the Moon on September 7. This lander weighs over 1,400 kg and is named after the father of the Indian space programme, Dr Vikram Sarabhai.
Till date, there have been 38 attempts of ‘soft landing’ on the surface of the moon, out of which only 20 have been successful. So, the September 7 soft landing is going to be a very difficult test for Chandrayaan-2.
Upon reaching the surface, the lander Vikram will release the rover ‘Pragyaan’ to explore the lunar surface. Pragyaan is a six-wheeled robotic vehicle that can travel up to 500 metres and has a lifetime of one lunar day, which is equivalent to 14 Earth days.
Meanwhile, the orbiter will continue to circle around the Moon for about a year.
WHY ARE WE GOING TO THE MOON AGAIN?
Before we discuss why being on the Moon is so important, we need to understand the birth of the satellite. 4.6 billion years ago, our Sun was born and its birth set off the creation of the Solar System.
Earth, our home, was formed 4.54 billion years ago — 60 million years after the Sun was formed. On a cosmic scale that is a mere blip on the time radar. Back then, the Earth was a hot spinning ball of gases and the Solar System was a traffic jam of flying bodies colliding into one other.
The most popular theory for the creation of the Moon is what is known as the planet crash theory. It is believed that around 30-50 million years after the Earth was born, a large rock named Theia crashed into the planet. Theia was huge rock, 100 million times bigger than the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs and was almost the size of Mars.
It broke off large chunks from this early Earth and threw them into space. In time, gravity brought these pieces together to form the Moon. If the planet crash theory is to be believed, the Moon is made up of the remnants of the early Earth and so, offers the best insight into the early history of our planet and perhaps the Solar System.
SO THAT’S WHY WE’RE GOING TO THE MOON?
Yes. Earth’s present surface preserves negligible amount of information about its past. Regular tectonic activities have recycled the crust of the planet over and over again and have even shifted landmasses. This, complemented by the weathering of the surface because of rainfall, snow and wind over the course of billions of years has eared most of the craters formed by asteroid and comet impacts during the early years of the Earth.
But the situation on the moon is completely different.
Unlike earth, its surface is completely filled with craters of all shapes and sizes. This is especially true for the dark side of the Moon — which never faces our planet. On top of that, there is no rain, snow or wind on the Moon which could erase these ancient impacts.
This is why the Moon provides us undisturbed records of the early years of the Solar System. It is like the oldest photocopy of how Earth’s surface was like in its early years stored safely away. By examining the chemical composition of its rocks, we could obtain a glimpse into the early history of our planet and the solar system.
OKAY, BUT WHY THE SOUTH POLE?
We have found some of the most extreme environments of the Solar System on the Moon. With an absence of air to balance the heat from the Sun, the Moon can see its temperature reach over 125 degrees Celsius during day time and dip to minus 173 degrees Celsius in the night. Any water present on the lunar surface would almost certainly have boiled off in these conditions.
That is where the south pole of the Moon comes in. It remains in the shadow for more time as compared to the north pole. Scientists believe that the permanently shadowed craters on this side of the Moon could be a storehouse of age-old frozen water, the critical compound that is needed to sustain life that may have been transferred from our mother planet to our nearest cosmic companion.
Isro will be facing its toughest test on September 7, 2019. A successful soft landing would almost certainly open a box of new knowledge that would be of importance to not just to India but the entire human species. And if Pragyaan hits the jackpot of water, the south pole of the moon will become the global cynosure for perhaps the future settlers on the moon.
Guess which flag will they first see there?
As published in India Today on September 5, 2019.