Bangalore: History is about to be made in Sriharikota. On the dawn of Wednesday, October 22, the countdown will begin to the launch of India's first lunar mission, and with it, the start of a new era in Indian scientific research.
And at 6:20 am (IST), engines will ignite, thrusters will fire, and a dream will be realised, as a 1300-kg rocket blasts off into space in a direction India has never gone.
But India's mission to the moon is not just about a dream coming true. It's the grand finale to many untold stories - of pride, of sacrifice, of giving it everything and a little bit more.
This is Destination Moon.
The dream has been 10 years in the making. Chandrayaan, the craft that will go to the moon and orbit it for the next two years, boldly going where few have gone before, in search of water, minerals, and knowledge. In search, also, for another place in the universe where we could live.
“There’s only one Planet Earth. I don't think they've found an equivalent in the solar system to support life forms. But there's always a fear - if there is an impact of meteors, or something, a large portion of the globe can be damaged, civilization can be damaged. So if we have to look for space other than earth for human presence, the nearest object one can migrate at a later date, it is moon or mars,” says Madhavan Nair, Chairman, ISRO:
This craft will mark the beginning of India's space explorations. Until now, India has only launched satellites for communication or remote sensing.
But Chandrayaan will be the first time we will carry out scientific experiments in space. A craft that's smaller than a mini-bus, it'll reach the moon in 16 days. It'll conduct experiments that would tell us how the moon was formed, what the chemicals are in its atmosphere, and how these could be useful to us on Earth.
What's more, the entire mission costs less than half of what that the US or Europe have spent on their missions.
You might have played with ultra light Helium Balloons as a kid. But there's a lot more to Helium – it’s less common form, Helium 3, could be huge source of energy in the future. And apparently, there's a lot of it on the moon. So, finding Helium on the moon will be one of Chandrayan's key objectives.
Helium 3 is what motivates Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan for more space missions. Kasturirangan was the original script-writer of the Chandrayaan project in 1999 when he was chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation or ISRO.
Back then, few had realised the potential of Helium 3 and most had thought a moon mission a waste of money. But now Kasturirangan's brainchild has the world's attention. Many scientists now believe that Helium 3 can be used to generate electricity. And while it's rare on Earth, it's abundant on the moon.
“You have it on the moon. He-3 , if mined properly, can give you trillions watts of power for thousands of years. So you can see that type of potential in case of you explore and exploit the moon,” says scientist K Kasturirangan.
That apart, the lunar mission would also look for water. Because water would yield oxygen, and enough water could even make living on the moon possible.
“In future, space exploration will be more challenging, and moon could become a base for human exploration of other planets and going beyond the solar system itself. And if you want to establish a base, water is essential.. in case water is there, it supports life forms… and in addition, it can be dissociated using solar energy, it can become rocket fuel to travel from moon to other planets,” says Nair.
What sets the Chandrayaan project apart is also the amount of international collaboration involved. It's the first time mission where six countries are sending up instruments. 6 of the 11 scientific instruments the spacecraft will carry are from NASA and the European and Bulgarian space agencies.
Important among them: The Terrain Mapping Camera developed by ISRO - an imaging instrument which will produce a 3-dimensional high resolution atlas of the surface of the moon; The Hyper Spectral Imaging Camera, again developed by ISRO, which will map the mineral composition of the moon's surface; The X-ray spectrometer, made by the European Space Agency, and the high energy X-ray or hex spectrometer developed by ISRO will study the elemental composition of the moon.
But what's of special interest will be this machine - the moon impact probe which will detach from the spacecraft and land on the moon, taking pictures every second of the way.
T K Alex, director of ISRO's satellite centre says the probe will provide a 3-dimensional atlas of the moon that will tell us what to expect if we ever land on the moon ourselves.
Yes, it's a mission like never before … it'll put India among the top five space-faring countries of the world. But America and Russia have sent up probes to the moon 30 years back. So what's new about rediscovering the moon?
Ask 60-year-old retired wing commander Rakesh Sharma, who is today a reminder of India's first romance with all things outer space.
On the April 3, 2009, Sharma and his friends will celebrate the 25th anniversary of his journey into space on a Russian mission - in the days when India was yet to perfect its rockets.
“The way we're depleting earth's resources we must find another habitable place. We need to find another place where we can supplement resources on earth. This exploration is not just for the sake of exploration, it's more immediate. I think because of environmental degradation on earth, we need to look at other places, find some answers, find other sources of energy. Join in, there's a lot riding on this activity,” he says.