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With India's One Giant Step, Chandrayaan-3, Moon Race Heats Up

Chandrayaan-3, which means "Moon craft" in Sanskrit, follows India's successful launch of a probe into lunar orbit in 2008 and a failed lunar landing in 2019.

By Mathew KarnalPublished 10 months ago 4 min read
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India has crossed a critical milestone in its national space program as the Chandrayaan-3 (CH-3) spacecraft landed safely on the lunar surface. The landing has tested India's technological maturity and demonstrated its readiness to form international partnerships in lunar exploration. The CH-3 will also leave behind the imprint of the state emblem, enabling India to shape the debate and claim its stake in the political future of the moon and its resources.

A Better Design Philosophy

Considering these implications, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) adopted a fundamental shift in the mission design philosophy. It discarded the success-based design that underpinned the Chandrayaan-2 (CH-2) landing mission in favour of a failure-based strategy that ensures the CH-3 lander succeeds even amidst fully favourable conditions.

According to ISRO, the CH-2 lander software could not adjust for the velocity and attitude changes resulting from the higher thrust generated by the descent engines. Consequently, the spacecraft has crash-landed on the lunar surface and efforts to re-establish communication thereafter have failed.

Previously, the Chandrayaan-1 mission was also terminated prematurely

Owing to the uncontrollable heat erupting in the spacecraft.

The CH-3 was designed to withstand such known and unknown technical and environmental challenges. The Vikram lander is packed with a host of sensors to accurately determine its velocity and altitude. Eight attitude control engines are provided for stabilizing the lander during the descent.

It is also enabled to detect the variations in the slope of the lunar surface, avoid geographical hazards, and sense the touchdown. The landing zone has been enlarged and mapped properly. Most importantly, the lander legs were strengthened and a series of tests were conducted on them by simulating different lunar touchdown conditions.

Regardless of the redundancy and testing, the failure-based strategy assumes that all these sensors would fail, leaving the lander flying blind. Still, the Vikram lander is engineered in a way to land safely on the moon. The strategy also provisioned for the failure of two engines during the lander descent.

The New Lunar Race

This level of redundancy and testing is necessary for India to record a successful soft landing and roving on the moon, amidst increasing competition between the established and emerging space powers to prove their capability on the lunar surface.

Unlike the bipolar space race that characterized the Cold War, the (re)emerging lunar race involving multiple states is triggered by uncertainty over the ownership of the extracted lunar resources. It began with China's ambitious lunar exploration program initiated in 2007 (Chang'e-1) and the American design to establish a commercially driven lunar exploration architecture.

Moreover, the US and Luxembourg took advantage of the uncertainty over the resources and enacted domestic laws granting ownership of the extracted celestial resources to the prospective space mining companies operating from their jurisdiction. Considering the technological might of the major space powers and the ambiguity surrounding the ownership of lunar resources, it has become evident for the emerging and aspiring space powers that impressing a 'footprint' on the moon is the safest guarantee to lay claim over these resources.

The situation in Antarctica, where several countries maintain continuous presence through research stations amidst the claims of territoriality and potential extraction of resources, provided a practical reference into the political future of the moon to these countries.

In fact, the CH-3 landing is preceded by Russia's failed attempt to land the Luna 25 spacecraft and will be followed by the launch of Japan's lander mission. Israel also tried landing on the moon in April 2019, months ahead of the CH-2 (September 2019).

India's Lunar Presence Matters

The nationalist underpinnings of such races were not lost on India. The Moon Impact Probe released by the Chandrayaan-1 orbiter was imprinted with the state emblem and the national flag.

The CH-2 lander was also imprinted with the national flag, and the rover's wheels were engraved with the state emblem and ISRO's logo. The wheels of the CH-3 rover were similarly engraved. China too adopted a similar approach, including robotically hoisting its national flag while the Chang'e-5 spacecraft was on the moon.

This task should not be the ultimate goal, as the continuous presence on the moon is warranted for India to build a strong case in its favor regarding lunar resources. It should establish a dedicated Chandrakant Program Office with the responsibility for building and launching technologies relevant to the extraction and utilization of lunar samples.

All this is possible with the acknowledged mantra of self-reliance that enabled the indigenous development and production of strategic technologies. Possessing technological capability is fundamental to strengthening India's standpoint in the political dialogue on the moon and proposing partnerships with other major space powers, particularly our Artemis Accords partners.

Vid ya Sagar Reddy is a research analyst on outer space affairs. He tracks Indian, Chinese, and American space activities. Vida has published book chapters, and research articles in the Astropolitics and New Space journals. He also provided analyses for The Space Review, Space News, East Asia Forum, and DNA India. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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