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11 July 2019, Gateway House

Chandrayaan-2: presaging private participation

On 15 July, the Indian space programme will achieve a feat with the Chandrayaan-2 mission. Two challenges lie ahead: the speedy construction of Chandrayaan-3 and the development of a public-private ecosystem of space capabilities

Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies Programme

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On July 15, India will launch its second mission to the moon – the Chandrayaan-2. This is a milestone for science and a triumph for the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Once it lands on the Moon, as scheduled, in September 2019, the instruments onboard Chandrayaan-2’s two space probes – the lander Vikram and the rover Pragyan – are equipped to make far-reaching scientific discoveries on the lunar south pole, a location no other country has visited before.

The poles of the Moon are critical to the numerous national and international plans for human habitation. The lunar north pole has caves and underground channels, carved out by solidified lava, whereas the south pole has accumulated vast deposits of ice from water, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen. Both are of immense value for in situ resource utilisation when long-duration human presence becomes possible.

India should not lose this lead. The Chinese, Russian and U.S. public and private exploration missions are due to follow the Chandrayaan-2’s visit to the lunar south pole (see Table) in the next five years. These countries are working to realise long-duration human presence on the Moon in the decade of the 2030s. This demands that India not procrastinate in taking its next steps, as it did with Chandrayaan-2, which is seven years behind schedule. It must expedite Chandrayaan-3, which is currently being pursued as a joint India-Japan sample-return mission, for launch in 2023.

Is this realistically possible? Yes, if the country’s Department of Space (DoS) – India’s primary space exploration agenda-setting body – determines to expand its circle of trust beyond ISRO, the country’s space agency, to include the private sector and meet such deadlines. The DoS has an over-reliance on ISRO’s Chandrayaan series to achieve its lunar goals. This is not enough. It must work now to develop a space industrial ecosystem where public and private entities – universities, startups, R&D laboratories, conglomerates – outside the DoS can also undertake space exploration missions and add to ISRO’S limited capacities. For ISRO is well behind its counterparts in the U.S., Europe, Japan and even China, which are nurturing both for-profit industries and startups and also not-for-profit research institutions and universities, entrusting them with space exploration tasks usually assigned to a space agency.

The U.S., with huge technical, human and monetary resources at its disposal, is well-equipped to lead the global enterprise for lunar exploration in the near future. The latest catalyst for the U.S. to take a lead in this is the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015. The legislation has obliged the U.S. government, particularly the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), to nurture private space industries of U.S. origin for its lunar exploration goals under programmes such as the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP), Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (Lunar CATALYST) and Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS). These programmes are also attracting private space industries from other countries to build spacecraft, space probes (landers, rovers, robots), and cutting-edge technologies for robotic and human-rated missions to the Moon.

This exercise is not limited to lunar exploration. The recently announced NASA Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s icy-cold moon Titan, has been proposed by the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University. So also, NASA’s ongoing Osiris-REx sample-return mission to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, which is led by the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona. These universities have set the precedent of proposing the missions and being responsible for building and operating them.

Even though the space agencies of these countries can undertake lunar exploration missions solitarily, their space policy-makers, by involving the private sector, are seeking a multiplier effect of their countries’ strategic space capabilities.

The passivity in India’s policies for commercialising and industrialising space exploration must not lead to the under-utilisation of the emerging space capabilities that reside in entities outside DoS-supported institutions. If the neglect continues, other countries will gladly utilise these non-DoS space capabilities, thereby discouraging Indian practitioners of science and technology – a vital cohort for an India aiming to become a $5-trillion advanced manufacturing economy by 2024 and one that Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks to nurture.

The establishment of New Space India Limited (NSIL) – a public-sector company which is a single window to the commercialisation of space technologies spun off by ISRO – is a good sign. But like its sister concern, Antrix Corporation, NSIL continues to make ISRO a seller, and not a buyer, of technologies that private entities in India can build.

ISRO, competent as it is, cannot be the only warden of India’s space ambitions and necessities. This role should be extended to the private sector just as other countries are doing. Prime Minister Modi must articulate and aggressively pursue a restructured national vision for space exploration, with tasks delegated to Indian private, for-profit and not-for-profit entities. The DoS’ role should be to steer the regulation and governance of the resulting projects and programmes, freeing ISRO to undertake high-risk-high-reward and tactical space projects.

With Chandrayaan-2, India can be acknowledged as a pivotal lunar power. Yet, India’s real strength will be judged by its ability to extract commercial, industrial and strategic gains from arriving on the Moon. If DoS intends to make its space prowess a global success, it must follow the government’s goal of ‘Minimum Government-Maximum Governance’ in its plans to explore the Moon, Mars, Venus and beyond.

Table: Seven space missions, after Chandrayaan-2, bound for the south pole of the Moon between 2019-2024

Name of Mission Country Name of Lunar Programme Launch Year Participating Institutions Science Objectives
Lunar Flashlight (Artemis-1) U.S. Artemis 2021 NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory; NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center; University of California Los Angeles Identify exposed water ice deposits in the top 1-2 km layer of the lunar surface at the south pole
Lunar IceCube (Artemis-1) U.S. Artemis 2021 Morehead State University; Busek Company; NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center; Catholic University of America Prospect, locate and estimate water and other ice deposit volumes at the lunar south pole
Lunar Polar Hy-Map (Artemis-1) U.S. Artemis 2021 Arizona State University Measure the concentration of hydrogen (constituent of water) on the lunar south pole
Luna 25 Russia Luna-Glob 2021 Space Research Institute; NPO Lavochkin; Roscosmos Exploration of resources for subsequent in situ resource utilisation after the beginning of human habitation
Luna 26 Russia Luna-Glob 2022 Space Research Institute; NPO Lavochkin; Roscosmos, European Space Agency; U.S. private space companies Exploration of resources for subsequent in situ resource utilisation after the beginning of human habitation
Chang’e 6 China Chinese Lunar Exploration Programme 2020 China National Space Administration; China Academy of Space Technology Return geological samples from the lunar south pole to China
Chang’e 7 China Chinese Lunar Exploration Programme 2023 China National Space Administration; China Academy of Space Technology Exploration of resources for subsequent in situ resource utilisation after the beginning of human habitation

Chaitanya Giri is Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies, Gateway House.

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