India goes to the moon

doi:10.1038/nindia.2008.304 Published online 22 October 2008

Chandrayaan-1 took off into a cloudy morning sky.


The blast-off was 'perfect'. India is finally headed to the moon to join the elite club of countries who have been there. Chandrayaan-1 (Hindi for mooncraft), that took off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in southern India Wednesday morning, will primarily look for Helium-3, a fuel that might be mined for nuclear fusion reactors, among many other mysteries of the moon.

"Our baby is on way to the moon," said the visibly elated Chandrayaan project director Mylswamy Annadurai. It will reach there in a fortnight. Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) G. Madhavan Nair said every parameter of the mission performed as per the dot board. The spacecraft has been given sufficient velocity and altitude and is now orbiting the earth with precision around 23,000 km apogee (farthest point from earth) and 256 km at the perigree (nearest point from earth).

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called it a 'historic milestone in India's space programme' despite all the odds — heavy rains and thunderstorms — that scientists had to fight for the last four days at the spaceport off the Andhra Pradesh coast.

The 1,380 kg Chandrayaan-1, carrying 11 payloads, was put into orbit by ISRO's workhorse PSLV on its 14th successful flight. Of the payloads, five are Indian, two from NASA, three from the European Space Agency and one from Bulgaria.

After the 'textbook' launch, the action has now shifted to the Deep Space Network at Bylalu near Bangalore and the telemetry, tracking and command network (Istrac) in Bangalore. In the second phase of the mission, these two teams will keep a close eye on India's maiden mission to the moon.

Around November eight, Chandrayaan-1's orbit would be finally lowered to its intended 100 km height from the lunar surface. A probe will then be ejected, the cameras rolled out and other payloads turned on marking the key phase of the mission. The craft will eventually orbit the lunar poles for at least two years and scientists will communicate with it mainly from ISRO's base in Peenya, north of Bangalore.