With its eyes set on becoming a major space power, India on Friday successfully launched its third Moon mission, this time a far more complicated 41-day voyage to reach the lunar south pole where no other nation has gone before.
If the estimated Rs 600 crore Chandrayaan-3 mission of the Indian Space Research Organisation(ISRO) succeeds in landing a robotic lunar rover in the space agency's second attempt in four years, India will become the fourth country to master the technology of soft-landing on the Moon's surface after the US, China and the former Soviet Union.
Addressing a news conference shortly after the launch of the unmanned mission to a lunar region that is emerging as a potential site for future human exploration, a jubilant ISRO chairman S Somanath said the agency has planned for the "technically challenging" soft-landing on the Moon on August 23.
"We are expecting it (Chandrayaan-3) to enter into lunar orbit by August 1 and two-three weeks from then, separation of propulsion module and lander module will happen on August 17. The final descent is currently planned for August 23, at 5.47 pm IST. That is the plan if it goes as per the schedule," he said.
Chandrayaan-2 had failed in its lunar phase when its lander 'Vikram' crashed into the surface of the Moon following anomalies in the braking system in the lander while attempting a soft landing on September 7, 2019. Chandrayaan's maiden mission was in 2008.
As the 25-hour, 30-minute countdown of the mission for studying surface and chemical properties of the Moon ended, the latest LVM3-M4 rocket (formerly GSLVMkIII), dubbed as 'Fat boy' and 'Bahubali' for its heavy-lift capability, soared majestically into the sky from the second launch pad of the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh at the prefixed time of 2.35 pm, leaving behind a trail of thick orange smoke.
WATCH: The moment when ISRO launches India's ambitious project, Chandrayaan-3
Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed the launch of the mission as a "new chapter" in the country's space odyssey which has elevated the dreams and ambitions of every Indian. Political leaders cutting across party lines also lauded ISRO's feat.
As scientists inside the Mission Control Centre (MCC) at the spaceport waited with bated breath to see Chandrayaan-3 getting separated from the rocket about 16 minutes after lift-off, thousands of spectators broke into loud cheers after the launch vehicle's lift-off. Every announcement from the MCC on successful "separation" of the respective modules was greeted with applause.
From the MCC, ISRO chairman S Somanath said the rocket had injected Chandrayaan-3 into a precise orbit.
"Congratulations, India. Chandrayaan-3 has started its journey towards Moon. Our dear LVM 3 has already put Chandrayaan-3 craft into the precise orbit around Earth... and let us wish all the best for the craft for its further orbit raising manoeuvres and travel towards Moon in the coming days."
On the reasons why the south pole has been selected for performing scientific experiments in the current mission, he said, "Are are aiming for all the geophysical, chemical characteristics on the surface of the Moon. Second, study of the south pole has still not been explored."
Besides, nobody has conducted the thermal characteristics on the surface of the Moon which ISRO would be doing in this mission, he added.
Polar regions of the Moon are a very different terrain due to the environment and the difficulties it presents and therefore have remained unexplored. All the previous spacecraft to have reached the Moon have landed in the equatorial region, a few degrees latitude north or south of the lunar equator.
The Moon's south pole region is also being explored because there could be a possibility of presence of water in permanently shadowed areas around it.
Mission director S Mohana Kumar said the LVM3 rocket has once again proved to be the most reliable heavy lift vehicle of the ISRO. Today's mission was a 'penance' of many across ISRO, he added.
Project director P Veeramuthuvel said all the spacecraft health parameters, including power generation in propulsion module and lander module, were normal.
Union Minister of State for Science and Technology Jitendra Singh, who witnessed the launch along with several former ISRO chiefs, described the launch of the third Moon mission as a moment of glory for India and moment of destiny for all those in Sriharikota.
Singh said the PM had recently said sky is not the limit for Indo-US space cooperation and living by his words "I think Chandrayaan has gone beyond the limit of sky to explore the unexplored horizons of the universe beyond."
On the project cost of the Chandrayaan-3 mission, he said, "It was around Rs 600 crore."
Chandrayaan-3 consists of an indigenous propulsion module, lander module and a rover with an objective of developing and demonstrating new technologies required for inter-planetary missions, ISRO said. It will orbit the Earth for about 5-6 times in an elliptical cycle with 170 km closest and 36,500 km farthest from Earth and moving towards the lunar orbit.
Following the separation from the launch vehicle, the propulsion module along with the lander would proceed for an over a month-long journey towards reaching the orbit of the Moon, until it goes 100 km above the lunar surface.
After reaching the desired altitude, the lander module would begin its descent for a soft landing on the Moon's south pole region.
The LVM3 rocket has completed six consecutive successful missions. It has proved its versatility to undertake most complex missions including injecting multi-satellites, interplanetary missions among others. It is also the largest and heaviest launch vehicle ferrying Indian and international customer satellites, ISRO said.
The reason to fix the launch window during the month of July similar to Chandrayaan-2 mission (July 22, 2019) is because the Earth and Moon would be closer to each other during this part of the year.
The significance about the Chandrayaan-3 mission, unlike its unsuccessful predecessor, is that the propulsion module has a payload -- SHAPE -- Spectro-polarimetry of HAbitable Planet Earth, which is to study Earth from the lunar orbit.
ISRO said SHAPE is an experimental payload to study the spectro-polarimetric signatures of Earth in the near-infrared wavelength range.
Apart from the SHAPE payload, the propulsion module's main function is to carry the lander module from launch vehicle injection orbit till lander separation.
The lander module, after landing on the surface of the Moon, has payloads including RAMBHA-LP which is to measure the near surface plasma ions and electrons density and its changes, ChaSTE or Chandra's Surface Thermo Physical Experiment -- to carry out the measurements of thermal properties of lunar surface near the polar region-- and ILSA (Instrument for Lunar Seismic Activity) to measure seismicity around the landing site and delineating the structure of the lunar crust and mantle.
The rover, after the soft landing, would come out of the lander module and study the surface of the Moon through its payloads APXS -- Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer -- to derive the chemical composition and infer mineralogical composition to further enhance understanding of the lunar surface.
Rover, which has a mission life of one lunar day (14 Earth days), also has another payload, Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscope (LIBS), to determine the elemental composition of lunar soil and rocks around the lunar landing site.