India’s Moon Mission Is Far From Over

India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission to the Moon was, in a word, ambitious. Lifting off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on July 22nd, the mission hoped to simultaneously deliver an orbiter, lander, and rover to our nearest celestial neighbor. The launch and flight to the Moon went off without a hitch, and while there were certainly some tense moments, the spacecraft ultimately put itself into a stable lunar orbit and released the free-flying lander so it could set off on its independent mission.

Unfortunately, just seconds before the Vikram lander touched down, an anomaly occurred. At this point the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) still doesn’t know exactly what happened, but based on the live telemetry stream from the lander, some have theorized the craft started tumbling or otherwise became unstable between three and four kilometers above the surface.

Telemetry indicates a suboptimal landing orientation

In fact, for a brief moment the telemetry display actually showed the Vikram lander completely inverted, with engines seemingly accelerating the spacecraft towards the surface of the Moon. It’s unclear whether this was an accurate depiction of the lander’s orientation in the final moments before impact or a glitch in the real-time display, but it’s certainly not what you want to see when your craft is just seconds away from touchdown.

But for Chandrayaan-2, the story doesn’t end here. The bulk of the mission’s scientific goals were always to be accomplished by the orbiter itself. There were of course a number of scientific payloads aboard the Vikram lander, and even the Pragyan rover that it was carrying down to the surface, but they were always secondary objectives at best. The ISRO was well aware of the difficulties involved in making a soft landing on the Moon, and planned their mission objectives accordingly.

Rather than feel sorrow over the presumed destruction of Vikram and Pragyan, let’s take a look at the scientific hardware aboard the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter, and the long mission that still lies ahead of it.

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India Launched A Moon Orbiter, Lander, And Rover All In One Shot With Chandrayaan-2

On July 22nd, India launched an ambitious mission to simultaneously deliver an orbiter, lander, and rover to the Moon. Launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on a domestically-built GSLV Mk III rocket, Chandrayaan-2 is expected to enter lunar orbit on August 20th. If everything goes well, the mission’s lander module will touch down on September 7th.

Attempting a multifaceted mission of this nature is a bold move, but the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) does have the benefit of experience. The Chandrayaan-1 mission, launched in 2008, spent nearly a year operating in lunar orbit. That mission also included the so-called Moon Impact Probe (MIP), which deliberately crashed into the surface near the Shackleton crater. The MIP wasn’t designed to survive the impact, but it still secured India a position on the short list of countries that have placed an object on the lunar surface.

If the lander component of Chandrayaan-2, named Vikram after Indian space pioneer Vikram Sarabhai, can safely touch down on the lunar surface it will be a historic accomplishment for the ISRO. To date, the only countries to perform a controlled landing on the Moon are the Soviet Union, the United States, and China. Earlier in the year, it seemed Israel would secure its position as the fourth country to perform the feat with their Beresheet spacecraft, but a last second fault caused the craft to crash into the surface. The loss of Beresheet, while unfortunate, has given India an unexpected chance to take the coveted fourth position despite Israel’s head start.

We have a few months before the big event, but so far, everything has gone according to plan for Chandrayaan-2. As we await word that the spacecraft has successfully entered orbit around the Moon, let’s take a closer look at how this ambitious mission is supposed to work.

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Humanity Creates A Cloud Of Space Garbage, Again

With the destruction of the Microsat-R reconnaissance satellite on March 27th, India became the fourth country in history to successfully hit an orbiting satellite with a surface-launched weapon. While Microsat-R was indeed a military satellite, there was no hostile intent; the spacecraft was one of India’s own, launched earlier in the year. This follows the examples of previous anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons tests performed by the United States, Russia, and China, all of which targeted domestic spacecraft.

Yet despite the long history of ASAT weapon development among space-fairing nations, India’s recent test has come under considerable scrutiny. Historically, the peak of such testing was during the 1970’s as part of the Cold War rivalry between the United States and then Soviet Union. Humanity’s utilization of space in that era was limited, and the clouds of debris created by the destruction of the target spacecraft were of limited consequence. But today, with a permanently manned outpost in low Earth orbit and rapid commercial launches, space is simply too congested to risk similar experiments. The international community has strongly condemned the recent test as irresponsible.

For their part, India believes they have the right to develop their own defensive capabilities as other nations have before them, especially in light of their increasingly active space program. Prime Minister Narendra Modi released a statement reiterating that the test was not meant to be a provocative act:

Today’s anti-satellite missile will give a new strength to the country in terms of India’s security and a vision of developed journey. I want to assure the world today that it was not directed against anybody.

India has always been against arms race in space and there has been no change in this policy. This test of today does not violate any kind of international law or treaty agreements. We want to use modern technology for the protection and welfare of 130 million [1.3 Billion] citizens of the country.

Further, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) rejects claims that the test caused any serious danger to other spacecraft. They maintain that the test was carefully orchestrated to that any debris created would renter the Earth’s atmosphere within a matter of months; an assertion that’s been met with criticism by NASA.

So was the Indian ASAT test, known as Mission Shakti, really a danger to international space interests? How does it differ from the earlier tests carried out by other countries? Perhaps most importantly, why do we seem so fascinated with blowing stuff up in space?

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The SmallSat Launcher War

Over the last decade or so the definition of what a ‘small satellite’ is has ballooned beyond the original cubesat design specification to satellites of 50 or 100 kg. Today a ‘smallsat’ is defined far more around the cost, and sometimes the technologies used, than the size and shape of the box that goes into orbit.

There are now more than fifty companies working on launch vehicles dedicated to lifting these small satellites into orbit, and while nobody really expects all of those to survive the next few years, it’s going to be an interesting time in the launcher market. Because I have a sneaking suspicion that Jeff Bezos’ statement that “there’s not that much interesting about cubesats” may well turn out to be the twenty first century’s “nobody needs more than 640kb,” and it’s possible that everybody is wrong about how many of the launcher companies will survive in the long term.

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