Science mega-projects: India’s moon mission



The launch of Chandrayan-3

By Prof. Kirthi Tennakone

Centuries ago, inquisitive people did their experimentation in backyard sheds. They communicated with their peers, contributing to knowledge. This was the beginning of science.

In 1610, Galileo made a telescope himself, looked at the moon and declared its surface was rugged and covered with craters. Thereafter, astronomers constructed larger and larger telescopes until further size increases were beyond the capability of an amateur. Astronomer William Hershel succeeded in convincing King George III of England, that very large telescopes would see more wonders of the sky. He obtained funding to install a telescope with a 40 – feet mirror, the first mega-project in science, completed 1785.

The launching of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 opened the space age, going beyond terrestrial confines to probe the universe. Landing of two men on the moon in 1969 and missions to explore the moon and planets by the United States, China, the European Union and India were costly undertakings by the respective governments.

Parallely, the quest for understanding the structure of matter, which started in kitchens and backyards by chemists and physicists, and later in the laboratories of academic institutions, also demanded exceptionally expensive experimentation. The research of Marie Curie, Ernest Rutherford and others in the early 1900s disclosed the atomic constitution of matter. Understanding the nature of the constituents of the atom required accelerators and detection systems extending over kilometers. The Large Hadron Collider of the Central European Organisation for Nuclear Research was built for 4.75 billion dollars. One of the most expensive science projects ever to be commissioned.

Space mega-projects revealed the details of lunar terrain, rivers existed on Mars billions of years ago; the composition of asteroids; the universe expands faster, and many other pieces of strange information.

Investigations of similar magnitude in terms of cost, geared to understanding the structure of matter, found that the particles of the atomic nucleus, the protons and neutrons, are made of sub-units termed quarks, and the elusive entity ‘Higgs Boson”, needed to justify the modern theory of matter, indeed exists.

Many raise the question, “Of what use are these findings to justify the expenditure? “

Man’s forward march to prosperity, to live without fear, and to address cropping problems owes much to his inquisitiveness about things not immediately relevant to his livelihood. And this effort needs to be continued for the sake of humanity’s future.

The soft landing of Chandrayan-3 at a far southern latitude of the moon is scientifically, culturally and politically significant not only to India but also to Sri Lanka, the region, and the world at large. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India’s moon landing belongs to all humanity.

The moon’s south polar cap is a perplexingly peculiar and adventurous site. We cannot see the region, as it always points away from the earth. The sun poorly lit the south most lunar latitudes, because of the tilt of the moon’s axis of rotation. Consequently, the locations permanently shadowed by mountains and craters are the darkest and coldest spots in the solar system. For that reason, water and other volatile substances would have accumulated there, providing an opportunity for astrochemical investigations. Perhaps the signs of the origins of life outside the earth are hidden at the lunar South Pole.Chandrayaan-3 mission plans conducting experimentation to determine the chemical composition of the soil and the tenuous atmosphere immediately above the surface

One of the pictures of the moon surface sent by Pragyan rover

The southern polar region of the moon lacks sizable flat expanses free of rocks and craters. A landing spacecraft identifies obstacles and avoids those using the images of the terrain below. Because of poor illumination, soft landings near the moon’s South Pole present challenges that require more advanced technology. India’s landing of a module with a rover is an impressive first in space technology. Compared to similar moon missions, the cost of Chandraayan-3 is reported to be low and less than the production cost of a science fiction Hollywood movie, another positive for India’s space effort.

Indian space research was initiated in the early 1960s by the Gujarat-born physicist Vikram Sarabhai and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) founded in 1969.A policy of emphasizing basic science, the dedication of scientists and engineers and sound administration enabled this achievement in a relatively short period, when Russia, Japan, Israel and the United Arab Emirates failed in their attempts. The United States and China are planning missions to the lunar South Pole.

Science mega-projects boost the morale and confidence of a nation. They encourage students to take up science and feel that they have opportunities in their homeland to prosper and shine. The faith in science created by fascinating scientific projects induces far-reaching non-material benefits for society. Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, commenting on moon probes launched by the Soviet Union and the United States in the early days of space rocketry, said. “If a spacecraft could reach the Moon, why could not nations and societies discard old beliefs about this constellation and other planets?”

Some people prayed for the safe landing of Chandrayaan-3 at the moment it began approaching the lunar surface. Would they realise that their support for science and the dedication of scientists were true causes of landing without a crash?

Today, the political power and economic strength of a nation are determined largely by its scientific and technological capabilities. Existence few technological super giants has been the cause of many disputes, divisions and inability arrive at negotiations for the benefit of all. More and more political systems, equalising power will lead to a beneficial balancing influence. The world’s most populous nation gaining momentum competitively in advanced scientific research and technology signals promising future for all of us.

It is a pity that Sri Lanka has thus far not engaged itself in a major scientific project, competitive the with rest of the world. Saying that we didn’t have resources would not be a valid argument. All great scientific endeavours of highly original standing began in a small way. This was the situation in India. Visionaries such as physicists Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai and the mathematician cum aerodynamist Satish Dhawan who pursued advanced studies in the West before independence returned to India and started research from scratch, pointing out the necessity of engagement in fundamental studies indigenously and building institutions.

The scientific atmosphere in Sri Lanka at the time was similar. Arumugam Mailvagnam worked in Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge at the time of Ernest Rutherford, the discoverer of atomic structure. Jayarathnam Eliezer studied under Paul Murice Dirac, the foremost quantum theorist at the time. They returned to the University of Ceylon, Colombo and in the early 1950s, initiated research and did groundwork to establish an institution in Sri Lanka devoted to Physics and Mathematics as they were the catalysts that promote all areas of science and technology. Sir Nicolas Attygala, Vice-chancellor, University of Ceylon and eminent archaeologist Dr. Senarath Paranavithna, who had good rapport with the Ceylon Government at the time, supported the initiative. Institute of Fundamental Studies was established in 1981. Unfortunately, it didn’t stick to the originally intended mandate, and things far away from fundamental research in its true spirit were entertained, no significant difference compared to themes in other institutions devoted applied research. And there is no evidence of research there in key disciplines such as fundamental physics and mathematics that require more brains than costly instrumentation.

Homi Bhabha once said, “It is absolutely in the interest of India to have a vigorous school of research in fundamental physics, for such a school forms the spearhead of research not only in less advanced branches of physics but also in problems of immediate practical application in industry”

It is the above thinking that was implemented which gave India n clear reactors, biotechnological pharmaceutical, metallurgical industries etc. and enabled soft landing of a module on lunar South Pole, which no one else could achieve.

Chandrayaan-3 is a timely reminder for our policymakers to revive fundamental studies in Sri Lanka.


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