India Heading to the Moon

nyt chandrayaan.jpg

India is sending an unmanned space-ship to the moon, with take-off possibly as soon as Wednesday morning, Indian time [UPDATE: Take-off was successful!]:

The launch of Chandrayaan-1, as the vehicle is called (it means, roughly translated, “Moon Craft-1”) comes about a year after China’s first moon mission. The Indian mission is scheduled to last for two years, prepare a three-dimensional atlas of the moon and prospect its surface for natural resources, including uranium, a coveted fuel for nuclear power plants, according to the Indian Space Research Organization, or I.S.R.O. Allusions to an Asian space race could not be contained, even as Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, was due for a visit to China later in the week. (link)

Most of the Times article on the event focuses on the “Asian space race,” between India and China. Some more coverage in the Indian newspapers here, here, and especially here. The ExpressIndia story has the most technical information about the trip I’ve seen:

Earlier in the day, Prof J N Goswami, director of the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad, who is also the principal scientist for the Chandrayaan-1 mission, spoke about the possibility of finding helium-3 on the lunar surface. “Although generating power through nuclear fusion of helium-3 is a distant dream, but the possibilities are immense,” he said. The samples brought to Earth by the Apollo mission have indicated that Iron titanium oxide traps helium-3 molecules on the lunar surface, he said.

Goswami said he-3 content is very low. For every 100,000 helium-4 molecules, there is only one helium-3 molecule on the lunar surface. Besides, the scientific community is yet to simulate the conditions necessary for nuclear fusion. But, if Chandrayaan-1 is able to locate probable areas for finding helium-3, that in itself will be a very big achievement. It will help eliminate the two stages of producing deuterium from hydrogen and then producing helium-3 from deuterium, he added. (link)

Though I can hardly claim to be an expert on the science, from what I’ve been reading I’m skeptical at the outset about the search for uranium or helium-3 on the moon, mainly because I’m not sure what they would do with these materials even if they were to find some — build a lab? Bring it back? (Can anyone find more detailed accounts regarding the specific scientific goals for this mission? What exactly is going in Chandrayaan-1′s various payloads?)

One could argue — and I’m sure some will — that it’s hard to justify spending lots of money on a mission to the moon, when India obviously has lots of other issues to contend with right now.

I can see the objections, but I still think it’s pretty cool. Events like this can have huge symbolic significance, and I hope the launch tomorrow goes well. [UPDATE: It did. The rocket is supposed to reach the moon in fifteen days.]

87 thoughts on “India Heading to the Moon

  1. research always pays off, maybe in the long run, but u get much more out of it than you spend.

    LOL–overstate, much? always? really? Let’s wait and see. I hope it does pay off (and it may well do so!), but to have such a messianic faith in it is, uhh–ill-considered.

  2. frankly, this isn’t thaat much money, even for India ($78 million, not counting sunk+peripheral costs of the program presumably), and such unmanned missions are good PR to get more commercial clients — a reasonably good business to be in. a manned mission however is a different issue with much higher module costs, and lower scientific payoff.

    also, this is replicating stuff that was done in the early 60s from a spaceflight pov, but science-wise could be useful though it’s science missions seems to have some overlap with NASA’s lunar prospector mission that was launched in 1998.

    the big concern with this is not such missions, but whether this (and china’s launches) are all a prelude to a period of rapid space weaponization. The US has certainly not been helping in this regard, and a space weapons race, in addition to being a gigantic waste of money, would bring new strategic and military risks to everyone involved.

  3. I’ve never been able to make sense of that argument. “You’re starving and malnourished, therefore you don’t deserve broadband!” It’s always struck me as old-school colonial-style condescension in a new bottle.

    So it is colonial condescension to point out that its inexcusable for a nation to give such low priority to feeding its citizens, to abandon a huge chunk of its citizens to starvation?

  4. All Government sponsored activity, anywhere, delivers nothing but symbolic significance. There’s no material benefit to the taxpayer. It’s legalized swindle. M. Nam

    You would think that the libertarian lunatic fringe would slither off and hide under a rock after what has happened.

  5. Just as, in the planning stages itself, the Beijing olympics were seen as key to showcasing a China you could do business with, these status exercises are necessary for any nation that wants others to perceive it in a certain way. This change in perception of what India is–the land of abject poverty– will translate at so many levels to better economic opportunities. It won’t be a trickle down, it will be a gush. We have seen how in the last 10 years India has been transformed. This chandrayaan is a strategic move to keep the momentum going. Yes poor Indians will get some too. Traveling the villages of Tamilnadu last year, I heard many tales of the prodigal son–the one who took up computers and now thinks he is too good for his laborer folks. And I also met the ingrates, the IT worker, the accountant, the small businessman, and marveled at the mobility of this underclass. Yes, Tamilnadu is not Bihar but this is also an Indian story, one that is not often told. There is mobility in India. Most of us here are a generation or two or three removed from a poor village. Yeah, but back to the chandra udaan, wow!

  6. 78 mil is dirt cheap. its the cost of 3 bollywood films. vipul’s upcoming london dreams is 25 mil, srk’s next is 30, rajini’s robot is not far behind either.

  7. Chandrayaan carries a lot of payload from EU countries and the US. Earlier earth-orbit missions have carried such payloads too (sometimes, paid for by those countries)

    Anyone know what the payload of the Chinese missions was? Are we the only ones profiting (monetarily and in goodwill) by these missions?

  8. 59 · suede said

    Chandrayaan carries a lot of payload from EU countries and the US. Earlier earth-orbit missions have carried such payloads too (sometimes, paid for by those countries)

    Beta, are you surprised that taxi-service to the moon is largely an Indian enterprise ?

  9. India has also been launching satellites for quite a few countries if I remember correctly and I think it is quite a lucrative “taxi service” too. It is cheaper for smaller countries which do not have set up and the geographic requirements to outsource the launch work.

  10. 45 · sn said

    Lets get a sense of proportion here. This mission’s budget is like 90 million USD.. That’s like ten times smaller than Ambani’s house in Mumbai. I fail to see why a mission that costs less than a Jumbo jet should be so criticized.

    What? Logic? Here? Outrageous…

  11. Big ups for India, and big ups for Razib. It wasn’t too long ago when this pauper was going around the internet talking about people’s skull shapes. You’ve come a long way Razzy boy.

  12. 78 mil is dirt cheap. its the cost of 3 bollywood films. vipul’s upcoming london dreams is 25 mil, srk’s next is 30, rajini’s robot is not far behind either.

    This is the right comparison. I don’t think this space research is wasting so much money. If the government wants to reduce spending, they could get rid of the colonial practice of having twenty servants to serve every minister, IAS officer and other middle level officers. Force them to make their own coffee.

    Throw open all the colonial era buildings like Raj Bhavan, Rashtrapathi Bhavan etc. to public as museums and charge money and add it to the government coffers.

  13. As for spaceflight, it’s often a useful engineering and technological testbed even if no new scientific knowledge comes out of it. For instance, it’s a good demonstration of engines, guidance systems, telemetry, cameras and informatics interfaces, all of which can be used in both civilian and military applications. In that sense, Apollo’s contribution to science was not much, but it was hugely important for engineering and technology, including development of early fuel cells and food preservation technology.

    In a more diffuse context, it’s often good on general principles to give money to smart people and let them play with it. When a bunch of physicists found it hard in the late 1980s and early 1990s to share information about their experimental results, one of them developed what would become the WWW to get around the difficulty. Had the WWW been designed top down by committee, it would never have taken off. Those ancillary benefits are relatively infrequent, and cannot be foretold with precision, but often have huge impact.

    All good points Pingpong, as well as what others are saying about the amount. I have read that India has the ability to meet its population’s nutrition needs – maybe the money is not being spent wisely on that end and it has less to do with the amount of money that’s being spent.

  14. 65 · PS said

    When a bunch of physicists found it hard in the late 1980s and early 1990s to share information about their experimental results, one of them developed what would become the WWW to get around the difficulty. Had the WWW been designed top down by committee, it would never have taken off.

    Of course, like most ‘founding myths’, this is more false than true. Tim Berners-Lee invented an early version of hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) for CERN, but the WWW we know today was in fact designed by committee. The main committee-like group being called ICANN – Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers! OK, it was a joint multi-stakeholder consultative project committee! And Al Gore, with his ‘breakfast group committee’ in the 1990s had something to do with it, too. That’s probably why it took off. In fact, had it been just upto the physicists at CERN, it would likely have stayed a curiosity-plaything, occasionally pulled out to wow the visiting journalist, if that. There was in fact fierce, elitist opposition to the ‘commercialization of the internet’ amongst academic physicist-engineer types in the early 1990s, when the first user-friendly interfaces for email started coming out.

    So by all means let’s mythologize, but let’s de-mythologize too.

  15. Who would you pick as India’s first lunar cosmonaut in a Bollywood movie? I think a big budget blowout super hit would egg the project on.

  16. Dr Amonymous on October 21, 2008 05:59 PM · Direct link · “Quote”(?) India Heading to the Moon Cool. Maybe the Indian elite, the Pakistani elite, and the Chinese elite can all go together and we can force them to stay there until they come back with some good ideas rather than an arms race.

    On the other hand Sending all the elites to the moon may not be a good idea

  17. I’ve argued for spend on the mission on my blog as well. I am claiming that the mission will serve lots of purposes. People argue about this even with the large hadron collider. Science does not always have very straightforward aims. Sometimes you see the effect of finding penicillin while growing some random culture. Going outside your comfort zone increases the chances of learning something new. Getting Rumsfeldian, sometimes we have to venture forth to find the unknown unknowns.

  18. Of course, like most ‘founding myths’, this is more false than true. Tim Berners-Lee invented an early version of hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) for CERN,

    Chachaji, any idea who invented the internet? The French claim that it is they–that is what French school children are taught. And I always thought it was at UCLA, a few floors below my old office in the Math/Science building. There is no arguing with the French on anything. And content on the internet is mostly American. I once wrote back to a journalist who had written about this. But his reply was even more garbled than the original article. So who do I believe and what do I belive? Anyone know?

  19. 71 · my_dog_jagat said

    Chachaji, any idea who invented the internet?

    Me. Seriously, though, it depends on what you mean by “the internet”.

    Kleinrock at UCLA is credit with the original form of packet switching (as opposed to circuit switching, which was the then prevalent form, and is used in telephone networks), and UCLA was one of the first nodes in the Arpanet. Packet switching trades off guaranteed quality with the assumption that it can take advantage of natural variations in the rates of individual connections, and thereby provide a certain network capacity with far less provisioning than telecom networks. Pouzin was responsible for the “French ARPANET”, where he is credited with the notion of using unreliable packets (called datagrams) – which wasn’t new, he had seen the idea at UCLA, but he further developed some notions of reliable transport etc. However, Pouzin’s work was killed by French telecom industries who believed in a circuit switched world, and instead proposed the alternative standard X.25, which as history has shown, proved a resounding failure (although some of the ideas from there, and from circuit switching, were used in the mid 90s to develop the ATM network link technology which is used for several underlying high throughput cables, say trans atlantic cables, in the Internet).

    Cerf and Kahn are credited with the now extant and successful notion of IP as an overarching – maybe I should say underarching – protocol that all participating networks are expected to support. This has enabled the great explosion in the size of the Internet – new networks can seamlessly add on to it, as long as they support IP. This is in contrast to a world where each network would support its own protocol. in which case addition to the Internet would require cumbersome translations between protocols. Further, they worked on the addressing schemes to actually address sources and destinations on the Internet, the mechanisms to route traffic between nodes, as well as the ability to ensure reliable data transport using unreliable IP datagrams.

    (This alone is not enough. The original mechanisms caused the network to collapse when too many people joined it. In fact, this happened in the mid 80s, which is when Van Jacobson introduced the congestion control protocol that is now the heart of TCP, and which ensures that uncoordinated senders which do not know the details of the routes their packets are taking, the capacities of the different links, and the number and rate of connections they are sharing each of these links with, can still converge on the rate of traffic they should send at which will not overwhelm the network.)

    As for HTTP and linking which enabled the Web, Tim Berners Lee is indeed credited with that. Why is the Web mostly dominated by American content? Actually, you do have to think the much maligned and misrepresented me to thank for that, at least to some extent. It was the Al Gore committee in the mid 90s that was responsible for providing the right incentives and conditions to create the broadband explosion, as well as the platform of universal access with network neutrality, crucial to the wide reach and current success of the internet.

  20. 1 · MoorNam said

    All Government sponsored activity, anywhere, delivers nothing but symbolic significance. There’s no material benefit to the taxpayer. It’s legalized swindle.

    Yeah – like the Interstate Highway system, NIH, NSF, NASA, Social Security, FDA and so on…

  21. Seriously, though, it depends on what you mean by “the internet”.

    Obviously, internet was not “invented” by any single person or organization. It was just a natural consequence of the way things were developing. An infinite number of epsilon contributions from so many people are involved in this. Among those epsilons, some have a relatively higher contribution than the others, but in the big picture, even the biggest epsilon is a minor part of the whole story.

  22. Throw open all the colonial era buildings like Raj Bhavan, Rashtrapathi Bhavan etc. to public as museums and charge money and add it to the government coffers.

    Those buildings are still being used as active gov’t. offices!

  23. Those buildings are still being used as active gov’t. offices!

    Mummify the folks working there in their work positions – they’ll be an added attraction to the museum.

    M. Nam

  24. Those buildings are still being used as active gov’t. offices!

    No, those buildings are used as residences for Governors, Presidents etc. who are basically retired politicians or their bureaucrat sidekicks. They lead luxurious lives in a sprawling estate with thousands of folks employed just to look after them.

    Atleast active politicians need to meet people, act like they are solving problems. The Governors do no such thing.

  25. Governors, Presidents etc. who are basically retired politicians or their bureaucrat sidekicks. They lead luxurious lives in a sprawling estate with thousands of folks employed just to look after them.

    All except one…

    M. Nam

  26. Ponniyan 80:

    No, those buildings are used as residences for Governors, Presidents etc. who are basically retired politicians or their bureaucrat sidekicks.

    No, those buildings are used as residences for Governors, Presidents, etc… their large extended families(LEF) and friends of these large extended families (FLEF). These “buildings” as you put it come equipped with independant guest wings–quite like Versailles– where all manner of politicians, IAS officialdom etc… and their LEF and FLEF can stay. Although it is a very luxurious lifestyle, it is also, as you can see, quite inclusive. Why, I myself have stayed in a number of these places.

  27. No, those buildings are used as residences for Governors, Presidents, etc… their large extended families(LEF) and friends of these large extended families (FLEF). These “buildings” as you put it come equipped with independant guest wings–quite like Versailles– where all manner of politicians, IAS officialdom etc… and their LEF and FLEF can stay. Although it is a very luxurious lifestyle, it is also, as you can see, quite inclusive. Why, I myself have stayed in a number of these places.

    lucky you..

    That’s true.. I went inside the Raj Bhavan (Chennai) when I was a kid on a school excursion trip (One of the kids’ father worked there and got some permission, I think). The sofa set there could have accomodated the tiny apartment that we lived in at that time. These guys have too much fun doing practically nothing.

  28. As an aerospace engineering major, I’m really proud. To the haters, when you realize the amount of work that goes into even figuring out how to get a rocket into space, let alone to the moon and back, and then ACTUALLY DOING IT, you’ll realize that talking smack about this is stupid.

    And to the Canadian, thanks:

    31 · khoofia said

    not true. there are several reasons why space is important. I will give you the canadian perspective even though we piggyback on nasa. a. the canadarm technology is useful in deep sea exploration and preparing marine vessels. b. though the space station is not in polar orbit, the field of view is wide enough to test satellite communicaitons for our northern frontiers. c. multispectral remote sensing is an offshoot of the old hasselblad cameras that were first used on the lunar mission. without testing these new technologies in such fashion, we wont be able to ascertain the best way to monitor our northern shores and keep it out of the clutches of the dastardly americans, the nefarious danes and the ghastly russians. d. it helps relieve tumescence. seriously. i dont know about women – but i think guys like exploration for the heck of it. it’s like wanking. only better.

    -Space hockey…the final frontier! -Synthetic space maple syrup!

  29. I don’t understand why a secular nation has to keep christen its indigenous scientific instruments with Sanskrit names of religious connotation. Its a moment of pride for all Indians, and we must have more inclusive names. Arjun, Tejas, Prithvi, Agni and now Chandrayaan ? Sounds like the Sangh Parivar’s vision of India to me.

  30. ^Would you prefer it if they were given Latin/Greek names? Or how about that Arabized/Bastardized langauage known as Urdu? Sanskrit is the classical language of India.

  31. The plusses for the moon mission are many: It advances the cause of pure science, affirms/confirms the quality of Indian made components and systems since anything made for space has to be of good quality; enhances India as an attractive source of commercial launches, thereby bringing in foreign exchange into India; paves the way for larger missions, such as a manned one, a Mars one and a space station; and yes, though overstated, improves the ‘image’ of the country. The question of poverty vs the space programme- why drag in the Indian space agency into this? They are NOT huge consumers of money, and they give a lot to the cause of economic development, as another poster pointed out. India’s space programme is the most civilian oriented of just about all the major countries. China’s, Russia’s and the US’ in its early stages were all military oriented and mitary derived; China’s to this day is military controlled. The military linkages in India are minimal. It’s much more about telecommincations, I&B, remote sensing for resource detection and space science i.e astronomy. If you are looking for waste, look at corruption and luxury imports.