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Failures are the Pillars of Success

Even if the Chandrayaan-2 mission is regarded as a failed mission, it would yield valuable lessons for ISRO for its next attempt at soft landing on the Moon.

Issue: 08-2019By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Illustration(s): By Anoop Kamath

The Chandrayaan-2, a mission undertaken by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to carry out a soft landing on the Moon in its South Pole region by a space vehicle named as Vikram that carried a Rover named as Pragyan, was meant for exploration of the Lunar surface. The mission was launched on July 22 this year from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre located on the island of Sriharikota off the coast of Andhra Pradesh in the Bay of Bengal. After a journey lasting for 48 days, on 07 September, while approaching for a landing on the surface of the Moon, when the Lander Vikram was just 2.1 km from its landing site, it apparently encountered a technical glitch that resulted in total loss of communication with the ISRO Satellite Control Centre. At this stage, it is difficult for ISRO to state precisely as to what went wrong. However, as per a statement issued by the organisation, they will be in a position to identify the problem that led to the failure of the mission in the last minute and take appropriate corrective action for the next mission.

The Chandrayaan-2 mission was preceded by Chandrayaan-1, the first lunar probe undertaken by ISRO under the Chandrayaan programme. It was launched by ISRO on October 22, 2008 using a PSLV-XL rocket and included a lunar Orbiter and a Moon Impact Probe. The Chandrayaan-1 was inserted into lunar orbit on November 08, 2008 and on November 14, the Moon Impact Probe separated from the Chandrayaan orbiter and struck the South Pole in a controlled manner, making India the fourth country in the world to make its mark in the domain of lunar exploration.

While the way mission Chandrayaan-2 is being projected in some quarters as having come to a sudden end and is generally being perceived as a failure, which is likely to generate a wave of disappointment across the nation, the fact is that so far, there is no clear cut evidence to prove or even suggest that the Lander Vikram has actually crashed on the lunar surface. All that we know so far is that there has been a breakdown of communication between the Lander Vikram and the satellite control centre at ISRO. There is still a possibility that the Lander Vikram could have landed at the planned site on the South Pole of the Moon. Whether this is so or whether the Lander Vikram along with the Rover Pragyan has crashed in the vicinity of the proposed landing site, can be confirmed by images captured by the high definition cameras on board the Orbiter which is still functional and in orbit around the Moon. ISRO is expected to release a news bulletin on this in the near future.

What needs to be understood at this stage is that the Chandrayaan-2 mission had two parts. The first part which is 95 percent of the task, is to be performed by the Orbiter which has an orbital life of one year. During this period, the Orbiter will continue taking high resolution pictures of the lunar surface and transmit these to the satellite control centre at ISRO. The second part of the mission which constitutes only five percent of the task, was to carry out a limited exploration of the lunar surface by the Rover Pragyan essentially to establish the presence of water in liquid form or in the form of ice. Compared to the Orbiter, the Rover Pragyan had a life of mere 14 days. If one still insists on regarding mission Chandrayaan-2 as a failure, then it would be more appropriate to define it as a failure by only five percent.

A successful soft landing on the surface of the Moon would have made India the fourth country in the world after the United States, Russia and China to have achieved this feat! What is also noteworthy is that the cost of the Chandrayaan-2 mission is about $140 million which compared to cost of similar projects by other nations is very low. The Chandrayaan-2 mission is also extremely important for ISRO as it holds great significance for future space exploration missions, including those to Mars.

In this mission under discussion, the Lander Vikram came very close to the lunar surface after a long and complex journey involving transit from orbital path around the Earth to that of the Moon. This itself reflects a high degree of professional capability as well as achievement by the scientific community at ISRO through what has been a totally indigenous effort. Carrying out a soft landing on the Moon is an extremely complex and difficult task. Of the 38 attempts that have been made by the leading space faring nations of the world in the last few years, only 50 percent have been successful.

In the final analysis, even if the Chandrayaan-2 mission is regarded as a failed mission, it would yield valuable lessons for ISRO for its next attempt at soft landing on the Moon. After all, we cannot ignore the old adage that failures are the pillars of success!