Saturday , 20 April 2019

Nandkumar M Kamat

Lunopolitics is global race, a competition between nations to land on, claim space, map and mine resources on the moon. There is lot of talk in India by ISRO about lunar exploration but without any long term definite plans to overtake China. The insecurity and immaturity of the Indian scientific community was also exposed when they failed to compliment and congratulate the Chinese for their recent success.

The Chinese strategy to race past all other space faring nation is becoming clearer to the world. While India procrastinated and kept the world guessing about the launch of the thrice delayed ambitious Chandrayan-2 mission, the neighbour has overtaken us. On Friday, January 11 finally ISRO made up its mind to launch the mission which it insists should be renamed as Chandrayan-3. It will be launched towards the end of April 2019 probably aimed to drum up a patriotic fervour and excitement in the country to coincide with the important general elections.

Unlike India, China is very firm and focused on its 25 years long lunar exploration programme. By AD 2030 they want to build a base on the moon. In Chinese culture, Chang’e is the name of Moon goddess. The space programme is under control of the Red Army or People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the mission for exploration of the moon was launched in a series of spacecrafts named after the moon goddess. Chang’e- 1 and 2 were sent to orbit the moon in 2007 and 2010. Chang’e 3 landed on Moon in 2013. Now global attention is fixed on Chang’e 4. The hottest topic for global debate in aerospace engineering and astronautics is the success of PRC in planning a very complex mission to land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon.

Chang’e 4, the fourth in the series touched down at 7:56 IST on January 4 2019, becoming the first spacecraft to land on the far side of the moon. It carried a small rover Yutu-2 which was deployed about 12 hours after the landing. It woke up on January 10 and began its work. India needs to learn from this mission because PRC has successfully roped in Germany, Sweden, Saudi Arabia and European Space Agency thus projecting its power and engineering capacity. Xinhua the official Chinese news agency reported that a neutron radiation detector aboard the lander, developed by Germany, and a neutral atom detector on the rover, developed by Sweden, have both switched on for test operations. Their data will be transmitted to the ground via the relay satellite Queqiao (Magpie Bridge), which was launched in May 2018 to set up the communication link between Earth and the moon’s far side. The Chang’e-4 mission, including the probe, Queqiao and a micro satellite orbiting the moon, is equipped with four payloads developed through international cooperation. Queqiao carries a low-frequency radio astronomical instrument developed by the Netherlands, and the radioisotope heat source, a collaboration between Chinese and Russian scientists, will support the probe through the lunar night, each equivalent to about 14 days on Earth, when the temperature can fall to minus 180 degrees celsius. China set up a ground station in Argentina to play an important role in the monitoring and control of the mission.

The ground stations of European Space Agency are also supporting China. A micro-imaging camera by Saudi Arabia aboard the micro satellite, which was launched together with Queqiao, is orbiting the moon and has sent back a photo in June 2018, capturing Earth and the moon together.

Chang’e 4 has the following objectives to be completed on far side of the Moon- measure the chemical compositions of lunar rocks and soils; measure lunar surface temperature over the duration of the mission; carry out low-frequency radio astronomical observation and research using a radio telescope; study of cosmic rays and observe the solar corona, investigate its radiation characteristics and mechanism, and to explore the evolution and transport of coronal mass ejections (CME) between the Sun and Earth.

The Yutu -2 rover has a suite of instruments which include– a Panoramic Camera (PCAM), installed on the rover’s mast and can rotate in a full circle. It has a spectral range of 420 nm–700 nm and it acquires 3D images by binocular stereovision. Another instrument is the Lunar Penetrating Radar (LPR), a ground penetrating radar with a probing depth of approximately 30 m with 30 cm vertical resolution, and more than 100 m with 10 m vertical resolution. Then it has a Visible and Near-Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (VNIS), for imaging spectroscopy that can then be used for identification of surface materials and atmospheric trace gases. The spectral range covers visible to near-infrared wavelengths (450 nm – 950 nm). The rover also has Advanced Small Analyzer for Neutrals (ASAN), which is an energetic neutral atom analyser provided by the Swedish Institute of Space Physics (IRF). It will reveal how solar wind interacts with the lunar surface, that may help determine the process behind the formation of lunar water.

From this week the results from the above instruments will begin to flow and the world will be impressed by rapid strides by PRC in lunopolitics. This being the golden jubilee year of landing of the first astronauts on the moon, perhaps PRC wants to send a clear message to USA. The lesson for ISRO is simple- either compete or collaborate with the Chinese. There is no other option in lunopolitics.

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