Space missions in India were challenged by delays this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with all the mission launches planned for 2020 were postponed to 2021 or later. Although at the 2021 Budget announcement, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman expressed that she was positive that things will be back on track this year, news reports suggest otherwise. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chief K Sivan said that Chandrayaan-3 would likely be launched in 2022. Sivan also said that ISRO is working towards their second mission to Mars, Mangalyaan 2, which will only occur after the third moon mission is launched. The first Indian human spaceflight mission Gaganyaan, may send three Indians to space by 2022, Sivan added.
Chandrayaan 3 is a follow-up mission from ISRO to the Chandrayaan 2 that was launched in 2019. The Chandrayaan 2 mission was intended to make a landing on the moon’s far side. However, complications in the final minutes before touchdown led to a loss of communications with the lander-rover module, which crash-landed on the surface at a higher-than-planned velocity. The Chandrayaan 2 orbiter continues to perform science experiments and map the lunar surface from an altitude of 100 kilometers.
Sitharam, at the Budget session, had said, “2021 will be the year of Chandrayaan-3.” However, Sivan has said that the mission has been pushed back again and will launch a year later – in 2022 – with no further specification of date or month.
“We are working on it. It is the same configuration as Chandrayaan-2, but it will not have an orbiter. The orbiter launched during Chandrayaan-2 will be used for Chandrayaan-3,” Sivan told PTI. “With that, we are working on a system, and mostly the launch will be next year in 2022,” he added.
Chandrayaan 3 will have similar components – a lander and a rover – but not the orbiter, since the Chandrayaan 2 orbiter is live and operating well. The lack of an orbiter also brings down the overall mission cost to an estimated Rs 6.15 billion, compared to Rs 9.7 billion. It cost ISRO to carry out the Chandrayaan 2 mission. The third moon mission will touch down in the Aitken basin, on the Earth’s natural satellite, which is an important location for any future sustainable lunar habitation.
So far, the US, China, and UAE have made successful trips to the Red Planet. All of them have missions that arrived at Mars this year. It is hardly surprising that India has also announced its upcoming Mars mission. The orbiter-only mission, called Mangalyaan 2, will be similar to Mangalyaan 1, Sivan said. While ISRO is yet to announce a deadline for the Mars mission, Sivan said Mangalyaan 2 would only be undertaken after Chandrayaan 3 is launched.
The landing on Mars is tougher, and that Chandrayaan-3 will demonstrate ISRO’s landing capabilities, Sivan added.
After its first Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) was successful, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) called for ‘Announcement of Opportunities’ on MOM-2.
Mangalyaan-1 is “still working good” and sending data. Sivan said, “Right now, we are thinking about the orbiter mission only. Rover, lander…we are at least not thinking in this process.”
Sivan said the space agency had earlier asked the scientific community for suggestions on possible experiments to carry out on Mars. ISRO is in the process of receiving these inputs, he added.
“Once we get these suggestions, we will prepare a project report and discuss (an expert) committee. Then we will go to Space Commission,” Sivan said. The Space Commission is the highest body that takes policy decisions on activities related to space.
The Mangalyaan-1 mission or Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) was launched in November 2013, after which it entered Mars orbit in September 2014. This was India’s first endeavor to reach another planet successfully. The launch vehicle, spacecraft, and ground segment cost Rs 450 crore, making it one of the cheapest missions to Mars to date. While the mission was designed to work for a period of six months, it is now in its seventh year running. The Mars Orbiter has returned thousands of pictures of the Red Planet, according to ISRO, adding up to over two terabytes.
The first uncrewed mission for Gaganyaan will take place in December 2021. As per the ISRO mandate, two uncrewed missions need to be carried out successfully before the crewed mission launches for orbit. ISRO had targetted sending Indians to space before the country completes its 75th year of independence on 15 August 2021. But with the COVID-19 pandemic slowing down progress, the timelines have now been revised. Asked about Gaganyaan’s launch, Sivan told PTI, “A lot of technology needs to be demonstrated. We will decide on the time (of the human-crewed mission) after checking whether all the technology is perfect.”
Currently, four Indian astronauts have been sent to Russia to train as part of the joint partnership between ISRO and the Russian space agency Roscosmos. The candidate astronauts began training at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center (GCTC) in February last year. ISRO surgeons will also be trained in space-related medical situations.
ISRO has other major projects lined up, including its mission to Venus Shukrayaan-1 and Aditya-L1, the space agency’s maiden mission to the Sun.