Anusuya Datta is a writer and journalist with a special interest in Earth observation and sustainability issues. She is based out of Canada, and previously worked for Geospatial World. She continues to write for several publications, including CBC.

Aug. 23, 2023, will be marked as a day of historical significance for India and space exploration. The Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) Chandrayaan-3 mission landed on the moon at 8:34 am EDT (6:04 pm India Standard Time), making India the fourth nation after the United States, the Soviet Union and China to successfully touch down on the lunar surface with a robotic craft.

The flawless soft landing makes Chandrayaan-3 the first spacecraft to touch down on the moon’s south polar region. The feat comes close on the heels of Russia’s Luna-25 spacecraft experiencing loss of control and subsequently crashing onto the lunar surface. 

Time is of the essence here, as Chandrayaan-3 is powered by solar panels and is designed to last a single lunar day, equivalent to 14 Earth days. Within this time frame, it is slated to carry out a series of experiments, including a spectrometer analysis of the lunar surface’s mineral composition, before plunging into darkness at the conclusion of the lunar day. 

While both Luna-25 and the Vikram lander on Chandrayaan-3 had instruments designed to study the lunar regolith and immediate exosphere, water and minerals, including Helium3, the main difference between the two was that the Russian craft was planned to work for one Earth year. It had a radioisotope thermal generator for heat and electric power, while Vikram and Pragyan (Chandrayaan-3’s rover) will not survive the lunar night.

The success of the Chandrayaan-3 mission marks a watershed moment, as it becomes the first spacecraft to land on the moon’s south pole — a region containing water ice and valuable minerals. The implication of this pioneering feat is significant, and the data and insights drawn from these tests will surely capture global attention as they will aid in future lunar missions.

It’s noteworthy that Chandrayaan-1, a lunar orbiter mission launched in 2008 as India’s first endeavor to send a craft beyond Earth, was also the first to detect water on the lunar surface – a discovery that drastically influenced the plans of the U.S. and Chinese space programs for human lunar exploration. The lunar South Pole is also set to be the landing site for the United States’ Artemis 3 mission. Scientists had long speculated that shaded craters in this region could contain substantial deposits of water ice, which could be harnessed for various purposes. Chandrayaan-1’s findings provided substantial support for these theories.

Relentless dedication

From transporting rocket parts on a bicycle and bullock carts to the Chandrayaan-3 mission, ISRO’s growth story reads like the script of a movie.

black and white photo of two men transporting a rocket cone supported on a bicycle.
Parts of the first ISRO rocket being carried on a bicycle towards the launch site.

As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted following the launch on July 14, 2023, “Chandrayaan-3 scripts a new chapter in India’s space odyssey… It soars high, elevating the dreams and ambitions of every Indian. This momentous achievement is a testament to our scientists’ relentless dedication.” 

He couldn’t have been more right. 

ISRO’s history is characterized by resilience, innovation, and collaboration. Established in 1969, ISRO has maintained a robust remote sensing program since 1988, offering valuable Earth Observation data in various spatial, spectral and temporal resolutions through a range of instruments. Many do not know that its PAN cameras (aboard IRS-1C) were the highest-resolution civilian cameras in the world until the launch of U.S.-based DigitalGlobe’s Ikonos satellite in 1999.

ISRO has launched 124 of its own spacecraft, including three to the moon and one to Mars; and has facilitated the launch of 424 satellites from other countries. Its old workhorse PSLV is a prime choice for rideshare services, notable for deploying 104 satellites in a single launch in 2017, a world record until SpaceX’s Transporter-1 mission surpassed it in 2021. 

In 2018, ISRO completed its own navigation system, NavIC, positioning itself among the elite club of nations (U.S., Russia, China, the European Union, and partly Japan) with this capability. NavIC was created over apprehensions that foreign government-controlled global navigation satellite systems might not be available in unfriendly situations, as happened in 1999 when the U.S. denied India’s request for GPS data in the Kargil region on the Indo-Pak border.

The Chandrayaan missions only signify the continuation of this legacy. The success of the GSLV Mk-III launch, carrying Chandrayaan-2, marked a transformative moment, underscoring ISRO’s adeptness at managing hefty payloads. Building on this achievement, Chandrayaan-3 has refined this prowess, envisioning a future where India’s lunar endeavors are fully nurtured within its own capabilities.

As for money, there was never enough. ISRO’s annual budget for 2023-24 is 125,439 million rupees ($1.5 billion). This was an 8% cut from the previous budget estimate, including a 32% cut in expenditure for space science for missions such as Chandrayaan-3 and the upcoming Aditya L1 mission to study the sun. Compare this to NASA, which will receive $25.4 billion in fiscal year 2023, roughly a 5.6% increase over 2022.

ISRO’s technological prowess garnered global attention in 2013 with the success of the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), also known as Mangalyaan. What set MOM apart was not just the fact that it was the first successful attempt by any country to put a spacecraft in Mars orbit in its maiden attempt, but the mission’s astounding cost-efficiency — $74 million — which was $26 million cheaper than Gravity, the Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster that launched in theaters a month before MOM launched to Mars. MOM operated in orbit for eight years, observing the Martian surface consistently until its conclusion in 2022.

Incidentally, the Chandrayaan-3 mission cost around $75 million, about the same as one SpaceX Falcon 9 launch

The saga of the Chandrayaan missions

Nine years after Chandrayaan-1, Chandrayaan-2 launched in July 2019, but was not successful. The craft reached the moon’s orbit as scheduled, and the lander and the rover were scheduled to land in the south-polar region when the lander crashed as it deviated from its intended trajectory. ISRO said the crash was due to a software glitch.

Chandrayaan-3 is essentially almost the same as Chandrayaan-2, with the identified software issue rectified.

Chandrayaan-3’s success holds potential significance for India’s aspirations of establishing a sustained human presence on the moon. Under the Artemis Accords, ISRO can lay claim to the landing area for mining rights. Further, a successful Chandrayaan-3 mission will surely catalyze innovative scientific research, facilitating groundbreaking experiments that contribute to lunar understanding, including its composition, geology, and resource potential. It will also provide a boost to the planned ones like the Lunar Polar Exploration Mission (LUPEX), the collaboration between ISRO and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), to explore the south pole region of the moon.

At the heart of India’s space journey lies a pivotal lesson in self-reliance. ISRO serves as a living testament to the remarkable potential of Indian scientists in conquering challenges. Despite bureaucratic entanglements, political intricacies, and limited resources, ISRO has shattered stereotypes, emerging as a worthy rival to the elite space club, a feat so impactful that the New York Times offered a rare apology for its controversial caricature in 2014. Since then, ISRO’s prominence has only soared, and the narrative unfolds further with each chapter.

Anusuya Datta is a writer and journalist with a special interest in Earth observation and sustainability issues. She is based out of Canada, and previously worked for Geospatial World. She is part of the EO4SDG board, and continues to write for several...