ISRO, Chandrayaan-2 & need to plug loopholes

Lalit Shastri

The ISRO scientists involved in the Chandrayaan-2 Mission deserve every praise. Notwithstanding the failure to soft land the Lander craft on Moon, the scientists involved in the mission deserve a standing ovation for executing one of the most difficult maneuvers during the historic journey of Chandrayaan-2.

Chandrayaan-2 Mission was aimed at taking a big leap from Chandrayaan-1 which had placed the orbiter in the lunar orbit in 2008. This time the task at hand was to land the Lander on the lunar surface at a specified site and deploy a Rover for conducting in-situ studies.

Orbiter Craft

When sentiments and emotions are high and it is the responsibility of every citizen to ensure the morale of the ISRO scientists is maintained, there is also a need to take a concerted view of the whole gamut of issues to plug loopholes and move forward on the path shown by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his address from the ISRO headquarters on 7 September 2019.

Fault lines

On 20 July 2018, Newsroom24x7 had published a news report with the title “What ails ISRO” with the direct pointer that ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) was resembling a war zone and its morale was at its nadir. It had also been asserted categorically “as things stand today, it is obvious that the impact of the present ISRO Chairman (K Sivan) will have repercussion on India’s space programme long after he has gone”.

Through this news item, Newsroom24x7 had brought to the fore the state of affairs vis-a-vis ISRO by specifically focusing on the stripping of ISRO’s Satellite Center of all its frontline scientists and how they had been dumped in the HQ. Citing the case of the moon man Dr. M Annadurai, it had been highlighted that on his retirement a launch vehicle man with virtually no satellite experience was replacing him and this would be amounting to killing any innovation in satellites. Around the same time, senior ISRO Center director, Tapan Misra, who was at Additional Secretary level, was stripped of his powers and made Officer on Special Duty to the Chairman. Many senior ISRO scientists, who were contributing to various reviews and R&D, were similarly shunted.

Between 2015 and 2018, Dr M Annadurai was heading ISRO Satellite Centre, Bangalore as Director when Chandrayaan-2 was developed. It was under his leadeship that the Orbiter and Rover were built and the final thermovac tests were conducted. Also Lander, with 4 thrusters, was fully developed and was awaiting final tests. Annadurai had also developed the Lander test bed in Chitradurga. that’s when he was unceremoniously retired. In his farewell, all senior people were discretely asked not to go. Even Sivan did not bother to attend it though he was in Bangalore. Even for Chandrayaan-2 landing, on 7 September, it is learnt there were instructions not to invite him though many retired people, who retired decades ago were invited.

A lot of anger has been brewing among a section of senior serving and retired ISRO scientists and officers and their grudge is that ISRO Chairman K. Sivan has inbuilt dislike for brilliant scientists, who could challenge his claim to the top post within the organisation.

There are outstanding and distinguished scientists, who have shared their concern asking why a brilliant scientist like Annadurai was retired unceremoniously when the Chandrayaan-2 Mission was in its final stage.

Those in knowledeable circles especially want a probe into who are those who have been rewarded and who have been left out when it comes to giving hefty cash awards to the ISROites. There is a grapevine that many even go to the extent of exchanging the award money for JS, AS level promotions (in ISRO they are at the level of G,H, OS and DS- G and H for Science and Engineering, OS for Outstanding Scientist and DS for Distinguished Scientist). Serious doubts are being raised as Senior level Promotion Committees and Award Committees have common members.

In January 2019, when China had established its progress in space exploration by landing Chang’e 4 lunar rover on the far side of moon which had not been explored before, ISRO was busy giving final touches to the much delayed launch of Chandrayaan-2, which was orginally scheduled for 2015 or 2017.

Chandrayaan-2 Mission, a totally indigenous mission, comprised of an Orbiter, Lander and Rover. Chandrayaan-2 was launched on 22 July 2019. Five days before Moon landing, the Lander housing the Rover separated from the Orbiter upon reaching the 100 km lunar orbit. After a controlled descent, the Lander was supposed to soft land on the lunar surface at a specified site and deploy a Rover but a few seconds before the historic touch down on 7 September 2019, there was total snapping of contact with the Lander and what we have today is the Orbiter in moon orbit performing its predefined functions.

Flashback

After ISRO had already established its capability for Moon Orbiter through Chandrayaan-1 in 2008, the Indian Space agency and Russian Federal Space Agency (ROSCOSMOS) had entered into an agreement and the two agencies started pursuing Chandrayaan-2 as a joint mission with ROSCOSMOS having the responsibility for the Moon Lander and ISRO the responsibility to realize the Rover Module, Orbiter and the launch by GSLV.

When the lander was to be provided by Russia, Chandrayaan-2, was being targeted for launch during 2013.

Due to the failure of the Russian-led interplanetary mission Phobos-Grunt, a sample return mission to Phobos (one of the moons of Mars), decision was taken by ROSCOSMOS to increase the reliability of their planetary missions. ROSCOSMOS suggested that ISRO could provide Indian Rover for launch initially scheduled for 2015 or in 2017. At that stage, it was especially taken into consideration that the 2015 opportunity involved mass limitation for Rover and higher risk.

Since these inputs from Russian side called for a major programmatic re-alignment, an integrated programmatic review on Chandrayaan-2 (chaired by Prof U R Rao) was carried out to critically assess ISRO’s capability to design and deploy a Landing craft in a short time frame. The integrated review of Chandrayaan-2, recommended that India could realize the Lander module in the next few years.

In the later part of 2013 the exercise had begun to reconfigure the spacecraft for the proposed Indian Rover and Lander modules.

Three years later in December 2016, Union Minister of State for Atomic Energy and Space, Dr Jitendra Singh told the Rajya Sabha in writing that ISRO was working towards the launch of Chandrayaan-2 during the first quarter of 2018.

In mid-February 2018, Dr.Jitendra Singh had announced at a press conference that Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was planning to launch Chandrayan-2, India’s second mission to the moon around April 2018.

On this occasion, Secretary, Department of Space and Chairman Space Commission Dr. Sivan had said “if the mission’s launch could not take place in April due to unsuitable weather, the window for launch would be open till October 2018. Notwithstanding the announcement by Sivan, even in January 2019, Chandrayaan-2, was still in the testing stage for a launch announced for March 2019.

In October 2018, ISRO successfully tested the Cryogenic Engine (CE-20) for GSLV Mk-III / Chandrayaan-2 Mission. Earlier it was as decided in 2017 that the complex Chandrayaan-2 architecture would have GSLV-III, which has a higher payload capacity than the GSLV Mk 2 that was originally supposed to constitute the complex architecture. This created the ground for further reconfiguration, especially in terms of extra weight and fuel.

A major decision taken at this stage was to add an additional thruster at the centre, besides the thrusters powered by four liquid engines on the four sides for decelerating the Moon Lander. The autonomous control was supposed to switch off the four thrusters and the craft’s velocity was to be reduced in the final few second of descent by the central Thruster.

When an ISRO insider was contacted, he said: “The ISRO Chairman is obviously buying time by stating that he is not ruling out the possibility of establishing contact with the Lander craft even at this stage.”

Only a thorough probe by ISRO would establish what happened to Lander on 7 September. The questions arising as a result of the failed attempt to land Chandrayaan-2 Lander Vikram close to the lunar South Pole would be answered by the ISRO scientists, who would be studying, evaluating and drawing conclusions on the basis of data that would be available to them. Inquiry would reveal whether or not the central thruster was sufficient to perform the task or there was any delay between the switching off of the four thrusters and the switching on of the central thruster at the last moment because that could have resulted in the craft crashing on the Moon surface.

The probe should also cover the reasons that were given for repeatedly postponing the launch of Chandrayaan-2.

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