By landing on the moon, ISRO has reached a very important milestone. This is also the beginning of a new phase involving very different kinds of work related to the exploration of the moon. We need to understand the surface, the atmosphere and what is beneath the surface. There are lots of unknowns, lots of hows, whats and whys. On earth, and even in its oceans, it is relatively easy to answer some of these hows and whats – the whys can sometimes be difficult even here. In space, and on the moon, these are terribly difficult, at least at the present level of our understanding and technology.
The current round of lunar missions is often seen in terms of resource utilisation and extraction. It is a legitimate aspiration, and will possibly become a reality in a few years. But for that to happen, a lot of work needs to be done. Let’s suppose we have to dig the surface to get to a resource material. Now, how do we implement that digging without knowing the elemental composition of the surface mineral composition, the strength of the soil, or the power complexities that the digging extraction tool will require? It is these kinds of studies that will have to be undertaken. The current studies we are embarking on are the first steps towards achieving this goal. China, which has managed to land there already, is carrying out such studies. ISRO will have to join the efforts. Other countries, when they come, would also contribute.
We have been to the moon several times now but we still do not understand it very well. Even the understanding of its formation and evolution is limited. So, over several moon missions, we would need to make careful measurements of a variety of things. We know that water molecules exist on the moon. We also know about the presence of some other elements. But we have no idea about their relative abundance or concentrations. We know gravity is weak, but we have little idea about electrical or magnetic conductivity, or how temperature changes with the availability of sunlight. There is a lot of chemistry, a lot of geology, a lot of physics to be done on the moon.
Importantly, the current round of lunar explorations is, broadly speaking, a level playing field right now. No country has any great special advantage. The experience of having gone to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s has not given any particular headstart to the US or Russia, the successor state of the Soviet Union. This became evident in the failure of Luna-25 as well. Even the US, which has the most successful space programme in the world, is taking cautious steps in returning to the moon. ISRO can participate in this endeavour as an equal.
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From another perspective, ISRO will probably find itself in an increasing number of collaborative missions. It is already being sought out for such joint endeavours. The Artemis programme, the NASA-ISRO NISAR mission, the recently announced joint human spaceflight to the International Space Station with NASA and the joint lunar mission with Japan are just some of the collaborative missions that ISRO is undertaking. And this is a welcome development. Space is not just risky, it is also pretty expensive. Joint programmes can be economical, have shorter gestation periods, and higher science outputs. Collaborative programmes work only if all the partners have something meaningful to contribute. And the contributions can come only if the partner has capabilities and expertise. The moon landing is very important from this perspective. It demonstrates a key capability and brings meaningful expertise to the table. But space exploration is also becoming increasingly strategic. Lunar missions might be a level-playing field right now but they could become exclusionary soon. Countries that are going on the moon today expect to create permanent stations in a few years, possibly in a decade or so. Those who try to join later might find it exceedingly difficult to catch up. ISRO is at the right place at the right time and must capitalise on this opportunity to build further on its capabilities to take maximum advantage of the situation.
There are crucial upcoming missions that will add on to ISRO’s profile as a major space-faring agency. Of these, the missions to the sun or Venus might not evoke the same kind of emotions as the moon landing, but human spaceflight, both in the Gaganyaan mission and through the joint mission with NASA, is sure to generate a huge amount of excitement. And surely, we would see more missions to the moon as well. Now that Chandrayaan-3 has landed, one can expect to hear about the follow-up missions soon.
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ISRO is going through an important transformation right now, and most of its time in the future is likely to get consumed in planning and executing these kinds of scientific and planetary exploration missions. Not that the usual satellite launches would not happen, but they would become routine, and not the highlight of ISRO’s work capabilities. The opening up of the space sector for private players is also a welcome and necessary development. We are already seeing some enthusiastic players coming up and doing well, though small in number. And it is heartening to see the kind of support and encouragement they are receiving from ISRO. Together, they can build a strong space ecosystem, complementing each other’s strengths. These are surely exciting times for the space sector in India.
The writer is Director, Indian Institute of Astrophysics