India moon mission

Indians cheer as the unmanned spacecraft lifts off Monday. — AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool

SATISH DHAWAN SPACE CENTER, India — India is on its way to the moon.

One week after a first attempt was canceled at the last minute, the Chandrayaan-2 mission blasted off at 2:43 p.m. Monday from the Satish Dhawan Space Center on India’s southeast coast, carrying an uncrewed lunar lander and the dreams of a nation.

The 142-foot, 700-ton rocket rose on a funnel of fire, ripping through the air perfectly straight and surprisingly fast before vanishing into a thick bank of clouds.

A roaring thunder echoed across the sky.

“The mission has been successfully accomplished!” blared a message from loudspeakers at mission control.

If the rest of the mission goes as well, India will become the fourth nation — after the United States, Russia and China — to land on the moon, more than 200,000 miles away. Its target is a region near the mysterious south pole, where no other missions have explored.

This would be a huge leap forward for India’s ambitious space program, and scientists and defense experts everywhere are watching to see whether the country can pull it off.

So are countless Indians. There are few things as unifying for a nation as a successful space program, and over the past few weeks Chandrayaan-2 posters have popped up everywhere and schoolchildren have been hunched over mini-Chandrayaans made from empty plastic bottles, learning the physics of rocketry.

The timing could not be better. This weekend was the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and the anniversary coverage has fanned lunar fever around the world.The mission includes four components: a giant Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle-Mark III rocket (though it is much shorter and lighter than the Saturn V rocket that lifted the Apollo missions); an orbiter; a lander; and a six-wheeled rover.

The purpose is to probe the south pole of the moon for the possibility of water ice and to study deposits of helium-3, believed to be a future energy source for Earth.

Indian officials say their new generation of sensors, cameras and other equipment could lead to scientific breakthroughs more than 50 years after the first manned mission to the moon.

“Every Indian is immensely proud today!” the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, said on Twitter. “Indian at heart, Indian in spirit!”

The mission was relatively inexpensive in space terms, costing less than $150 million — less than it cost to make the 2014 film “Interstellar.”

But Chandrayaan-2 will take until September to reach the moon, much longer than the relatively straight shot made by the Apollo missions, which cost billions (the presence of humans added to the price tag).

The Indian orbiter will conserve fuel by making ever-widening orbits around Earth before being captured by the moon’s gravity and pulled into lunar orbit.

The big moment should come in early September. That is when the lander is expected to break off from the orbiter and gently land on the moon’s surface. Because of the delay in communicating across such far distances, engineers and scientists back at mission control will not be able to help much. The lander will essentially be on autopilot, and a computer will be in charge of firing the various thrusters and steering the lander safely down.

“It will decide on its own and make decisions,” said Vivek Singh, a spokesman for the Indian Space Research Organization, India’s version of NASA.— (The New York Times)

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