Moon mission "only the beginning," says ISRO's Somanath

In an exclusive interview, the head of the space agency tells DW the Chandrayaan-3 success is a major boost to India's ambitions, with more explorations planned

ISRO chairman S. Somanath, speaking on the success of the Chandrayaan-3 mission (photo: DW)
ISRO chairman S. Somanath, speaking on the success of the Chandrayaan-3 mission (photo: DW)


On Wednesday, 23 August, India landed its lunar lander Vikram on the moon's south pole in a momentous accomplishment for the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). With the successful landing, India became the first country to put a spacecraft on the moon's south pole.

But for ISRO chairman S. Somanath, a new, critical phase of the Chandrayaan-3 mission is just beginning.

The six-wheeled, solar-powered rover Pragyan that Vikram carted on to the lunar surface will explore the largely uncharted south pole region of the moon and transmit images and scientific data over a period of two weeks.

The rover will carry out spectrometer analysis of the mineral and chemical composition of the moon's surface, returning valuable data on the properties of lunar soil and rocks, with Somanath keeping a close watch on its collected data.

"The lander and rover are perfectly healthy, and so far, everything is working very well. There will be further movements and we are monitoring it. It will determine the elemental composition of lunar soil and rocks around the lunar landing site," Somanath told DW.

He added that the mission also aimed to confirm the presence of ice in the region, which could "supply oxygen, fuel, and drinking water for future space exploration"—and has now done so.

Mission boosts India's space ambitions

On a shoestring budget of about $74.58 million, (€69 million), the Chandrayaan mission puts India alongside the US, Russia and China in a small group of space-faring nations to pull off a controlled landing on the moon.

The Vikram landing comes just days after Russia's Luna-25, destined for the same region, crashed on the lunar surface.

The ISRO chief believes Chandrayaan's success will inspire India's space industry to push its boundaries of innovation. He dedicated the historic feat to India's entire scientific community.

"Missions like this will enhance India's capability to undertake complicated projects," said Somanath.

"We at ISRO will launch the Aditya-L1 mission in the first week of September, which is dedicated to studying the sun," he added.

The Aditya-L1 satellite, named after one of the Sanskrit words for the sun, will be transported into space by the Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. Its primary objectives cover the study of dynamics in the upper solar atmosphere, including the chromosphere and the corona.

"A mission to Venus is on the agenda but those details are being worked out and will take some time to happen. We went through a lot of pain and hard work for this lunar mission and we will succeed in the future," Somanath added.

The success of the Chandrayaan-3 mission is also expected bolster private Indian space companies and increase their share of the global launch market within the next decade.

"It is already happening and will receive a further boost. We can capitalise on our reputation for cost-competitive engineering," said the ISRO chief. "Already, it has spurred investment in private space launches and related satellite-based businesses."

According to report by management consulting firm Arthur D. Little, India could have a $40 billion space industry by 2040.

The report estimates that India's current space market is worth around $8 billion, and has been growing at about 4 per cent annually in the last few years, compared to 2 per cent globally.

India's moonshot years in the making

The planned operational span of the Vikram lander and the Pragyan rover is just one lunar day, equivalent to approximately 14 earth days.

Chandrayaan-3 is India's third lunar exploration mission. The 384,000 km journey was launched on July 14 from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota on India's south-east coast. Chandrayaan-3 orbited Earth several times to gain speed before embarking on its month-long lunar trajectory.

The successful landing comes nearly four years after Chandrayaan-3's predecessor, Chandrayaan-2, crashed while attempting to land on the moon's south pole in September 2019.

The incident was a blow to India's ambitions to become a space power. However, Somanath said the failure strengthened ISRO's resolve.

"Nobody needs reminding that the final moments before a craft's landing will be the riskiest. We learned a lot from failure and corrected it," he said.

"We spent years analysing each contingency and rectifying the errors of Chandrayaan-2, strengthening the hardware and software of the craft, and preparing for worst-case scenarios," Somanath added.

"We saw to it that the braking commands had to be far more detailed to ensure that the autonomous landing was performed in a controlled manner and velocity," he said.

In addition, Somanath said, the command stations ensured "continuous uninterrupted contact" with the Vikram lander module track the progress of the descent and make any corrections, if required.

"What is crucial is that we were also able to have many experiments that helped us to perfect the process of landing. Today, these efforts have paid dividends," added Somanath.

The ISRO chief made it a point to mention that it was a team effort that ensured the success of the mission and thanked the project director, mission operations executive and other team members.

"There are a lot of women engineers and scientists who worked directly on the mission, and this is a tribute to all of them," he added.

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