Chandrayaan-1 Didn’t Fail. It Fried

chandrayaan

As we all know by now, India’s first mission to the Moon (Chandrayaan-1) lost contact with mission control over a week ago. Very quickly, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) declared that the mission was unrecoverable, and after a 10-month stint, it was curtains for India’s début lunar jaunt.

Oh well, these things happen in space.

But not everyone sees it that way. Almost immediately, the media started calling Chandrayaan-1 a “failure.” The ISRO issued press releases saying that 95% of the mission objectives had been completed, so it couldn’t be considered a “failure.”

During the Al Jazeera Inside Story show I was invited to appear on shortly after contact was lost with the satellite, I mentioned that it isn’t easy to put stuff into space. Although the ISRO has been operational for the best part of 40 years, getting a probe to the moon, dropping an impactor onto the surface and surviving for 10 months wasn’t an easy thing to do by any means. How could the mission possibly be a failure? More of a partial success.

Some questions will obviously hover over the reasons for the mishap, but it doesn’t seem to be holding India back as they prepare Chandrayaan-2.

So what did happen? It would appear that some more details are surfacing about the satellite’s demise. The Indian press are pointing to a decision by the ISRO to increase the orbit of Chandrayaan-1 from 100km to 200km in May this year for scientific reasons. In actuality, the radiation shielding installed on the craft was insufficient, forcing mission control to increase the orbit away from the Moon.

And now it looks like the same problem — lack of decent radiation shielding — fried the communication computers on board the satellite, probably the root cause of the blackout. In any case, international specialists will meet in Bangalore today to shed some light on why Chandrayaan-1 disappeared and to evaluate its performance.

Lost In Space: India’s Chandrayaan-1 Moon Mission Goes Silent

A miniature replica of the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft (V. Ganesan/The Hindu)

Just as one mission begins (Discovery’s STS-128), another ends. Unfortunately, only 10 months after launch, the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) lunar satellite Chandrayaan-1 has mysteriously ceased communication with mission control. ISRO officials have declared that the mission has ended, 14 months earlier than planned.

On Saturday, at 1:30am local time, the ISRO lost communications, and according to a spokesman, the agency is no longer in control of the spacecraft. Chandrayaan-1 data was being received by a monitoring unit in the southern city of Bangalore. There is currently no explanation for the failure.

The mission had completed 3,400 orbits of the Moon and everything seemed to be operational for the next few thousand orbits. The ambitious mission was launched by the fledgling space agency to allow India to stake a claim over lunar exploration with the future hope of exploiting the Moon’s natural resources (such as the abundance of uranium). This mission put India into a very exclusive club of only five international space agencies that had sent missions to the Moon before (NASA, JAXA, ESA, ROSCOSMOS and the CNSA).

This isn’t the first problem the satellite had suffered, however. In May, the probe lost a critical instrument called a star sensor, and then in July, the craft overheated. Fortunately, further damage to the rest of the satellite was averted by ground controllers.

Despite the obviously upsetting news about the loss of the $80 million piece of ISRO hardware, officials are surprisingly upbeat about the whole thing.

The mission is definitely over. We have lost contact with the spacecraft,” Project Director M. Annadurai said. “It [Chandrayaan-1] has done its job technically… 100 per cent. Scientifically also, it has done almost 90-95 percent of its job.”

Personally, I think the ISRO did a superb job at developing Chandrayaan-1 mission, and simply getting the thing into lunar orbit is an incredible feat. Another aspect I was impressed with was the ground controllers’ ability to deal with problems in-flight and fix them accordingly. This can only help to strengthen India’s ability when launching future missions to the Moon.

Sources: The Hindu, New York Times