International cooperation will be the norm

Published : Nov 21, 2008 00:00 IST

G. Madhavan Nair, who is also Secretary, Department of Space.-K. MURALI KUMAR

G. Madhavan Nair, who is also Secretary, Department of Space.-K. MURALI KUMAR

Interview with G. Madhavan Nair, ISRO Chairman.

THIS is a very tricky affair, says G. Madhavan Nair, Chairman, Indian Space Research Organisation, and Secretary, Department of Space, on the manoeuvres required to send Chandrayaan-1 into the moons orbit. We should determine the position [of Chandrayaan-1] very accurately and plan out the strategy accordingly to give corrections to the spacecraft. So this becomes a unique task. We are going to wet our hands for the first time, he said in an interview to Frontline in his office in Bangalore on October 24.

Madhavan Nair said the idea to send a spacecraft to the moon went through a process of churning before it became a reality. He called the Chandrayaan-1 mission a scientific quest with a spectrum of instruments for a comprehensive understanding of the moon. Excerpts from the interview:

How did the idea to send an Indian spacecraft to the moon germinate? There are conflicting versions about how it originated.

This is basically a scientific quest. So the scientific community in the country was consulted. Fora such as the Indian Science Congress Association and the Astronautical Society of India were consulted. We had a major international conference on lunar exploration in Jaipur. So this idea was churned a number of times. [Then Prime Minister A.B.] Vajpayee ji came to witness one of the launches at Sriharikota. Perhaps that was the time when the idea really started moving forward. In his press conference at Sriharikota, somebody asked him, What about a moon mission? Then Vajpayeeji poetically described, The moon is so beautiful. All poets describe it to their loved ones. But I do not know how it will look like when you go close to it! This is exactly the comment he made.

Notwithstanding that, he encouraged us to get going. The project report was prepared by our teams in consultation with scientists and then put forward to the government for its approval. The present government was fully supportive. It gave the approval to the project. This is one of the projects with such complexity done within the shortest possible time.

For the first time, India has sent a spacecraft beyond the earths gravity deep into space. Can you give us an idea of the facilities that ISRO has created? What are the challenges involved in a deep-space mission?

This is unlike other space launches. Here, you first go into the earth orbit and step by step you go higher. Finally, when Chandrayaan-1 approaches the moon, you have to give it a nudge at the precise moment so that it goes round the moon. This is a very tricky affair. First of all, you have to keep communicating with the spacecraft. When the spacecraft goes farther and farther, the signals from it become weak. So you should have a much larger antenna than what we have been using. Most of our ground stations have a 13-metre antenna. Calculations showed that we should go for a 30-metre-plus antenna. There were two options: getting it from a foreign supplier or developing it indigenously. We took the latter option.

We knew that ECIL [Electronics Corporation of India Limited of the Department of Atomic Energy] is in the business of making huge dish antennas. The Bhabha Atomic Research Centre [BARC] has the capability to build servo control systems. Putting these two together and ISROs capability to design the feed and other RF [radio frequency] systems, we combined this expertise and the result is the spacecraft-tracking network at Byalalu near Bangalore.

Here [at Byalalu village], we have an antenna with a diameter of 32 m, the signal processing system, a huge computer, the database, and so on. Again, there is a back-up antenna with a diameter of 18 m. It is an imported item. These have all been put together in the form of a network. Besides, we have support from an international tracking network: we have communication links with a NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] station the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the U.S. and stations in Europe. All these are focussed towards the Byalalu set-up.

Is communication the only challenge in sending a spacecraft to the moon?

Basically, when spacecraft go around the earth, they are more secure because they are in the gravitational influence of the earth and we know precisely how they will behave. Whereas once you cross the earths gravitational field, the influence of the moon and the solar system and other planets in the solar system become predominant. I dont think we have precise measurements of that. We are going to do it for the first time. So when the engines are fired to take the spacecraft higher, it is going to be very difficult for the manoeuvres to be completed. We have to determine the position [of Chandrayaan-1] very accurately and plan out the strategy accordingly to give corrections to the spacecraft. So this becomes a unique task. We are going to wet our hands for the first time.

Why is there a renewed interest in the moon? Is it because of its mineral wealth and its helium-3, which may be the fuel of the future?

In the early phase, in the 1960s and 1970s, exploration of the moon was considered a part of the Cold War competition and prestige projects of the United States and Russia. They used to be prohibitively expensive and it was not cost-effective to undertake [more] such missions. The result was a lull for a long time.

But today, many of the forecasts indicate that the moon may become a base for human beings for various purposes to establish observatories for galactic observations and to have it as an intermediate base for travel to Mars and beyond. Again, if there are exotic minerals in abundant quantity on the moon, we can try to bring them to the earth for use.

First, we should understand what is there on the moon and what type of surface features exist there. Any travel to the moon will require that we know precisely the gravitational field of the moon. This prompted many countries to plan a new series of experiments. The ESA [European Space Agency] sent the SMART probe to the moon a few years ago. Japan and China sent spacecraft recently.

Selene of Japan and Change-1 of China.

Yes, Selene. Now, our mission is there. The U.S. will have a moon explorer next year. These are with the intention of understanding the moon in a comprehensive manner and to benefit the future for exploration and exploitation. From that angle, we have finally landed up with a very comprehensive set of instruments.

You said in the press conference at Sriharikota on October 22 that Chandrayaan-1 had a unique spectrum of scientific experiments. How did you choose them?

Indian scientists were clear about the missions primary objectives. If one has to get the lunar features, one has to look at the moons altitude history, orbital changes and so on. So a laser ranger system was brought in. If you want to have height information and know about craters, you require a stereoscopic imager. So we have sent a stereoscopic camera for that purpose. There is a multispectral imager, which will give a colour combination and spectral emissions related to minerals. There is an X-ray instrument which will look at the signatures relating to uranium and thorium. That makes a primary run.

When we announced the opportunities for international cooperation, it became evident that there were many scientists who were interested in the mission. About 30 proposals came. We short-listed six of them. Two happened to be from NASA, three from Europe and one from Bulgaria.

Out of these, one NASA instrument is unique Synthetic Aperture Radar. It will look for traces of water-ice on the moon. NASA also has a mineral mapper, which is similar to our mineral mapper. So they will be complementary.

The Europeans have gamma ray experiments and [experiments] for charged particles. So this became a unique combination, complementing each other. The data will be shared with scientists here and in other countries.

You have a good equation with Mike Griffin, NASAs chief administrator. There have been several international projects, such as the Large Hadron Collider, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor and Chandrayaan-1, with several countries participating in them. NASA has announced that it will establish a base on the moon by 2024. Will NASA invite India for cooperating in setting up such a base?

As far as planetary explorations are concerned, we have a good equation with NASA, the ESA, the Russian Space Agency, and so on. I, for one, strongly believe that international cooperation will be the norm for the future. Definitely, we are in touch with NASA as far as their plans for a base on the moon is concerned. We will not get such an opportunity [again].

Thirteen Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle missions have been successful in a row, with the standard PSLV version, the core-alone without the six strap-on booster motors, and now the advanced version of the PSLV with more powerful strap-ons, which successfully put Chandrayaan-1 in orbit. What is the secret of the PSLVs success whatever the variant? Is it the robustness of the design?

Yes. Basically, we have taken a conservative approach in design. We have taken a lot of rigour in implementing the quality checks. These two combined with our consistent efforts to improve the PSLVs performance have made it what it is today.

For Chandrayaan-2, we were to build the rover ourselves. This has now changed. You have signed an agreement with Russia, under which Russia will build the rover. Why have you divided the work?

Russia has long experience of soft-landing on the moon and doing an analysis on the spot. Yes, it is clear the Russians will be doing the lander part, based on their technology. As far as the rover is concerned, it could be a joint effort between the two countries. [In Chandrayaan-2, the rover will come out of the lander after the latter soft-lands on the moon.]

Have we already designed the rover?We have also made some proto-models.

You said India could send an Indian into space by 2015. As a precursor to Indias manned mission into space, we sent the Space Capsule Recovery Experiment (SRE) into space in January 2007 and brought it back. What are the challenges involved in sending an Indian into space?

Of course, training of astronauts is an important activity. More than that, to build a habitat that is suitable for humans in outer space, in the extremes of vacuum, radiation, zero-gravity conditions, and so on, is going to be the real challenge. Second is the safety of the crew. We should be able to recover them safely and bring them back. Third is the reliability of the launcher. Today, it [the failure rate] is roughly about 10 per cent. If we have to send a man into space, the failure rate should come down to 1 per cent or less. Technological improvements are required in the launch vehicle to ensure this.

Then comes the training of the crew to condition them for zero-gravity conditions and radiation, and psychologically tune them for such missions. The crew-training facilities have to be established. It is a big process by itself.

The Indian Air Force has experience in selecting pilots for the fighters. We had discussions with them to get their ideas and see how best simulators can be established.

Of course, the launch complex will be a new one that will ensure that passengers are safely taken on board and quarantine facilities have been established for them when they come back.

The new launch complex will come up at Sriharikota.

We are not thinking of another new set-up.

Has the government approved ISROs plans to send a spacecraft to Mars?

It is in our five-year plan. We have made some provision for the Mars mission. More than the funding or the capability to go to Mars, we are looking for good scientific proposals and then we will decide on the mission.

Former ISRO Chairman Prof. U.R. Rao says Mars has an atmosphere and a gravity field far greater than that of the moon. However, we still have to go to the moon to go to Mars. Is that why the moon is attracting so much attention?

As he rightly pointed out, Mars has better features and conditions that are more conducive to life. However, on the moon, we have to create everything afresh. That is going to be very difficult. At the same time, if you talk about the observation platforms that are required for the future study of astronomy, the moon becomes attractive because it is the nearest object. If you find water and so on there, it will become a base for future launches for rockets and their systems.

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