Search for Vikram

It has been about 5 days since my last post here. When we last left Vikram, we had left it incommunicado close to the surface of the Moon.

Since then, there has been a lot of speculation with little or no information. There is no information from ISRO including what it seems to be doing now. Information is coming in at a tangent, from astronomers studying Doppler readings of the Lander and the Orbiter.

ISRO’s last official update (at the time of writing) states that it had located the lander and that it was trying to establish communication with it. There was a lot of speculation initially about the status of the lander. Many foreign observers (like Jonathan McDowell, Cees Bassa, Chris B etc.)said that the lander had very little chance of survival knowing the speed at which it was travelling at the time ISRO received the last telemetry from the lander. ISRO released information to some sections of the media (PTI report ) that the lander was intact but toppled. This was not found as an update on the ISRO website.

Science reporters then began to question ISRO’s claim that the mission was 90-95% success. Vasudevan Mukunth for The Wire considered the method by which they arrived at the success rate. Jacob Koshy writes in The Hindu with much more depth and history for the reasons why this quote now looks like a way to airbrush the failure. There has been no official response yet. S M Ahmed who had an instrument on board the Moon Impact Probe of Chandrayaan 1 discusses possibilities as to the fate of the lander on his blog.

The lack of information now has people studying the few statements that ISRO has already made. A story in India Today seems to re-interpret ISRO’s message to say that they were in touch with Vikram till about 400 m above the surface of the Moon and not 2.1 km like many media reports have since claimed.

Meanwhile, Ryan Watkins, a planetary scientist tweeted that NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) will look for Vikram on September 17. LRO’s camera has a resolution of 0.5 m at an orbit of 100 km. It is believed that at this altitude, the images would not discern enough detail to let us know whether the lander is intact. There were reports that ISRO will lower the orbit of the Chandrayaan 2 orbiter to take a closer look. The orbiter has a camera with a better resolution than LRO. We got word from Edgar Kaiser, an amateur radio astronomer today that Chandrayaan 2 orbiter has now lowered its orbit above the South Pole.

Chandrayaan 2 orbiter orbit change detected on Doppler. Image: Edgar Kaiser

This seems contrary to rumours that K Sivan, ISRO Chairman has asked scientists to move on and focus on future missions. There were also some fairly stupid remarks from DRDO Chairman saying that PM Modi’s hug enabled ISRO to find Vikram.

While I’ve mostly given up on chances of locating Vikram intact we can await efforts from Deep Space Network (DSN) to hail the lander in hopes that it will be able to contact it.

Doppler seems to be bursting various balloons of hope that ISRO has created. It seems to be breaking news about the orbiter and lander. In space, you can’t lie. Covering up mistakes makes the situation much worse than needs to be.

Vikram Landing

Vikram is what ISRO calls the landing module of the Chandrayaan 2 spacecraft. The last we checked in on Chandrayaan 2, we witnessed the separation of the two modules of Chandrayaan 2. The orbiter module was in the correct orbit at the time of the separation.

Vikram then performed a couple of orbit lowering manoeuvre to reduce its orbit around 100 km by 30 km. As it approached the landing site, the spacecraft followed the desired trajectory through the rough braking phase where the speed of the vehicle was reduced drastically. All seemed to be going well up to this phase. The telemetry data sent back to ISRO Tracking Centre (ISTRAC) followed the mission plan.

The spacecraft then seemed to be deviating a bit from its track but seemed to be making an effort to return to the original path. The animation on the screen showed the spacecraft toppling over. It seems that Vikram was trying to stay in the correct orientation. At this point, ISRO said that they lost communication with Vikram at about 2.1 km above the lunar surface.

Doppler data from Vikram. Image: Cees Bassa, Dwingeloo Radio Telescope, Tweet.

We don’t have data as to what happened after this point. Doppler data received from Amsterdam’s Dwingeloo Radio Telescope was tweeted by Cees Bassa, an astronomer who was following Vikram at the telescope. This seems to show a “zoom” at the end which seemed to indicate a crash, according to him.

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ISRO’s own telemetry screen at the last available data point seems to indicate speeds which were considered too high for a proper landing to take place at the end. The above tweet is from Jason Davis of The Planetary Society who also has a good summary of events with some international context on their blog.

I was initially unhappy that the Prime Minister Narendra Modi walked away from ISTRAC letting ISRO Chairman K Sivan do the announcement. But, today morning he came back and with data announced that communication was lost. The data is still being analysed.

There are currently two orbiters in orbit around the Moon, Chandrayaan-2’s orbiter module and NASA’s Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter. Each should be having an orbit around 2 hours and so might come over the landing site within this month and we should be able to have a look. This would give final confirmation on what happened early today morning.

Is Chandrayaan 2 landing on the Moon’s South Pole?

No.

Rachana, over on Twitter, asked why the CNN covered Chandrayaan 2’s Moon landing on September 7 as that of the second landing on the far side of the Moon rather than as the first polar landing by any country. Rachana is a space professional and her tweets earlier on space have been worth following. She has also written useful FAQs for students and young professionals interested in space science. At the end, I felt Rachana may have shared the tweet only with the intention of sharing the discussion on the Reddit post.

Based on this tweet, I asked Ram Ramgopal of CNN the reason for this coverage. I immediately felt lazy for not following up the question myself before asking Ram and hence went looking on Wikipedia. I recognized the error and informed Ram apologising for the complaint. I still had a few queries regarding the lunar poles that @zingaroo kindly answered. Also, if you follow the link to her tweet it goes to Reddit where Ohsin also responds to the question. I learnt that we are landing neither on the Moon’s pole nor on its far side. I am saving as reference what I learnt here.

The tilts of Earth and the Moon. Image: Peter Sobchak, Wikimedia Commons

On Earth, the polar region is defined by Earth’s tilt at 23.4 degrees. Hence, areas above the latitudes of 66.6 degrees are considered the polar region. I mapped the same onto the Moon. Here, is where @zingaroo corrected me. Moon’s tilt is only 6.68 degrees. Hence, the Moon’s polar region is only that North or South of 83.32 degrees. The Chandrayaan landing site is well outside the Moon’s poles.

As for the Moon’s far side, ISRO’s search for a landing site required the site to be on the near side of the Moon.

Chandrayaan 2 Lander Module seperation

I was away for a few days from the blog as my parents were visiting. I got news about the separation of the orbiter and lander module as I was having lunch today.

Let’s backtrack a bit, to my last update on the mission. That update was provided when the spacecraft was placed in lunar orbit. At the time, the spacecraft was one integrated unit. It is made of two components – a lunar orbiter module and a lunar lander module.

Lander (Vikram) Module and Orbiter Module of Chandrayaan 2. Image: ISRO Launch Kit

Once it reached lunar orbit, the spacecraft performed the opposite of what did in Earth orbit. In Earth orbit, it used to fire its engines at the point closest to Earth to increase its speed. Now, in lunar orbit, the spacecraft turns around and does the same to reduce its speed. As it does so, the orbit lowers and the spacecraft gets closer to orbit around the Moon.

When we met the spacecraft last, it was in lunar orbit of 114 km x 18072 km. Since then, it did four engine firings on August 21, August 28, August 30 and September 1. Yesterday’s engine firing put the spacecraft in a 119 km x 127 km orbit around the Moon.

ISRO’s tweet visualises the lander module going closer to the Moon while the orbiter module staying in lunar orbit. Image: ISRO Twitter

Today, the lander module and the orbiter module separated. Currently, both are in the same orbit. While the orbiter will continue to be in its current orbit, the lander module will eventually achieve an orbit of 110 km x 36 km. The lander module will then perform a rocket powered descent to the surface of the Moon.

You can follow the latest updates from the mission on the ISRO website. News coverage from The Wire, The Times of India (which has a 51 second video from Times Now which has animated the picture above), ThePrint (which also gives you an idea on what comes next).

Chandrayaan 2 in lunar orbit

The Chandrayaan 2 spacecraft entered into an orbit around the Moon on August 20, 2019 at 09:02 AM (IST).

This was a result of a lunar orbit insertion (LOI) manoeuvre the spacecraft performed that lasted about 1738 seconds. The spacecraft was in Earth orbit and used it’s gravity to be propelled towards the Moon. As the spacecraft reached close to the Moon it used its on-board motor to perform a breaking to decrease its speed (this was demonstrated in Mission Mangal) and allowed itself to be captured by the Moon’s gravitational force.

The spacecraft entered into a 114 km x 18,072 km orbit around the Moon. This means that the spacecraft’s closest distance from the Moon (caller perilune) is 114 km and it’s farthest distance (called the apolune) is 18,072 km. The next day it performed another similar manoeuvre to reduce its speed and moved into an 118 km x 4,412 km orbit. This is the opposite of what it did in Earth orbit and will continue till it achieves a circular orbit of 100 km.

Image from the ISRO Launch Kit for Chandrayaan 2 which shows the mission sequence.
The Chandrayaan 2 spacecraft is now in its Lunar Bound Phase. Image: ISRO Launch Kit
Moon as viewed by Chandrayaan-2 LI4 Camera on 21 August 2019 19:03 UT
Moon as viewed by Chandrayaan-2 LI4 Camera on 21 August 2019 19:03 UT

Today, ISRO released pictures taken by the LI4 camera on board the Vikram lander of the Chandrayaan 2 spacecraft. LI4 probably stands for Landing Imager 4. It should be one of the cameras on the lander that would be used to guide the lander to the surface of the Moon.

The next manoeuvre is slated for August 28, early in the morning. You can follow the updates of Chandrayaan 2 directly from the ISRO website page.

Chandrayaan 2 on the way to the Moon

Chandrayaan 2, India’s second mission to the Moon lifted off from Sriharikota on July 22, 2019. The spacecraft was launched on board India’s GSLV Mk-3 rocket on it’s maiden non-development flight.

Photograph of the launch of the GSLV Mk-3 with the Chandrayaan 2 spacecraft by ISRO.
GSLV Mk 3 lifts-off with Chandrayaan 2. Image Courtesy: ISRO

It came after a launch scrub surrounding which there was lack of information and a lot of speculation. I watched the launch with my grandmother in Mumbai.

Since the launch, the spacecraft which currently has an orbiter and lander attached to each other performed 5 orbit raising manoeuvres on the way to the Moon.

India adopted this gradual orbit raising manoeuvre in order to balance the limitation of the spacecraft and the launch vehicle. A lower mass of the spacecraft would enable the launch vehicle to place the spacecraft into lunar orbiter but it would then not be able to carry any meaningful payload. The launch vehicle had only enough power to place Chandrayaan 2 in a geosynchronous transfer orbit.

Image of the Earth taken by LI4 camera on board the lander on Chandrayaan 2.
Image of Earth taken by the LI 4 camera on board Chandrayaan 2. Image Courtesy: ISRO

After the 5th orbit raising manoeuvre, the spacecraft will push off towards the Moon called Trans Lunar Insertion on August 14. Afterwards, the spacecraft will perform one more burn called the Lunar Orbit Insertion on August 20 that will let the spacecraft be captured by Moon’s gravity.

Review: ISRO Annual Report 2013-14

I saw the link to the 2013-14 Annual Report on the ISRO website thanks to the blinking “NEW” sign next to it. Usually, ISRO reports go over the top with missions that they tend to be working on and hoping to cover more ground than they realistically could. It usually had timelines that no one knew how they’d meet.

The 2013-14 Annual Report is different. It states the basic facts under each section and dwells very slightly on the future course of the missions under development. I am not really sure how I feel with this change especially since they did the unthinkable in putting together and launching the Mars Orbiter Mission in record time.

I have had things weighing on my mind this whole year. This meant that I have not been that on top of space developments as I have been in the past. The Report, put together as a sort of summary of what happened in the 2013-14 period that it covers, hence make lovely reading for me but really bland reading for people already in the loop. The Report is a long series of things which just goes like, “This happened, this happened, this happened, and you know what, this happened too!”

Without further ado, let’s go through this report now, shall we?

I like to begin with the Space Transportation Systems section and begin with the GSLV Mk-III project. This three stage vehicle is now prepping for a passive cryogenic stage flight carrying the Human Spaceflight Crew Module on top to test the design of the whole stack. ISRO has never done this before – flown a mission without a payload – since each launch cost so much. However, the string of failures that the GSLV Mk-I and Mk-II saw has slowed the approach they’re taking with the Mk-III or LVM3 as they refer to it internally and presentations they make. The passive cryogenic stage means that the cryogenic stage does not actually fire whilst the giant twin S-200 and the liquid L-110s will fire and take the vehicle up to a certain height and the engineers will get valuable data that can be used to improve the design and fix flaws in the aerodynamics. I really loved this picture of the CE-20 cryogenic engine that is at the heart of the third stage of the LVM3 in the Report undergoing a hot test.

CE-20-Thrust-Chamber-new

Image: The CE-20 cryogenic engine undergoing a hot test. Image Credit: ISRO. Image Source

Next, again in the Space Transportation Systems section is an eerie sounding title called “Pre-project Activities of the Human Spaceflight Programme”. The ISRO asked the Government for some money to put together the systems that would enable a human spaceflight programme. This section basically details on what happened under that head. The most interesting aspect for me in this are the Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment (CARE) and information related to tests for the Crew Escape Systems. CARE is expected to be on top of the LVM3 experimental flight I talked about above. This is an important test because it gives us crucial indications as to what the Crew Module can handle during an atmospheric re-entry or to put it bluntly, if humans inside it can survive an atmospheric re-entry. I am not really in favour of mingling this along with LVM3-X and think ISRO is trying to do too many things at once.

5HSP-CMImage: The Crew Module undergoing a test. Image Credit: ISRO. Image Source

ISRO loves indecipherable précis. Pray, expand on this? “Functioning of newly developed Head-end Mounted Safe Arm (HMSA) for solid motors in Crew Escape System was successfully demonstrated.” The work with parachutes with tests conducted in Chandigarh and Agra is interesting and I wish ISRO shares more of these on its Facebook and Twitter sites. With pictures, please!

I really need to read up on this LVM3-X flight. I think I’ve not really understood it well. Under the GSLV Mk-III section, it does not make mention of the Crew Module flight during the LVM3-X flight whereas the section above does. Hmm!

If you wander to the Space Sciences and Planetary Research section, the section on the Mars Orbiter Mission piqued my interest but ended in disappointment. The section is a nice synopsis of what’s happened so far. No looking at the future. No mention of a future/planned Mars mission. The mission does deserve kudos for its achievement thus far and I think the section does not do it any justice. The section on Chandrayaan-II is more interesting. This is the section in which the marked toning down of ISRO’s Reports becomes most glaringly visible. Earlier reports were talking of Chandrayaan III or even IV by 2015. This Report only marks the parting of ways with Roscosmos and the tough job of developing a lunar lander that lies ahead of ISRO. It does not even offer a guess at the possible launch time-frame, though news reports have been pushing it further and further into the future. Pendulum swings! They’ve now got their launch vehicle – the GSLV Mk-II. They’re working on the orbiter and rover since they were working with Russia. The parting of ways on the project means that they had to rework the project with an Indian lander.

Chandrayaan 2 rover mobility test
Image: Chandrayaan-II Rover undergoing mobility test under reduced gravity conditions. Image Credit: ISRO. Image Source

The Audit Observation section also has an important paragraph on Edusat, India’s effort at tele-education. Whilst ISRO has been at pains to make this into a success, the CAG seems to report that the planning was bad and basically all the ground infrastructural network did not come up as expected. As the network developed, the satellite idled with no useful function. By the time the network on ground developed, the satellite seems to have given up waiting. I also think that similar criticism can be levelled at ISRO for its planetary projects to Mars and the Moon. Chandrayaan-II seems to be coming almost a decade after it’s predecessor launched and there is no mention of the next Mars mission at all.

Annual Reports usually make drab reading except for people who follow intently. Earlier, ISRO has gone overboard with planning and now seems to be extra shy thanks to all that it wasn’t able to achieve as promised. I think the Report needs to strike a healthy balance of information on the projects undertaken in the year and a glance at what’s coming in the future, especially if it is exciting.

Chandrayaan-II Recent Updates

Note: I wrote this on my earlier blog hosted as http://parallelspirals.blogspot.com. I recovered the text from the WayBack Machine. This post appeared on December 22, 2010 as per the time stamp. I’m trying to collect here again all my old writings spread on various blogs.

Over November and December, Anatoly Zak’s website RussianSpaceWeb has been updating information about Luna-Resurs. Luna-Resurs is the Russian name given to Chandrayaan-II.

As per a December 8, 2010 report on RussianSpaceWeb (which has translation from the NPO Lavochkin website) states that the team has defended improvements in Luna-Resurs mission. They seem to have finalised the payloads, the navigation and ballistic issues. It seems these improvements have been approved.

Another is on the selection of two landing sites for Chandrayaan-II. The report is based on a paper by E N Salyuta and others presented at the 41st Lunar and Planetary Conference  in March 2010! The selection was aided by results from American and Japanese spacecrafts – Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter (LRO) and Kaguya. The page provides background on the 2 sites selected from the 14 original based on criteria such as landing safety, scientific interest, constant line of communication  etc. The main landing site is near the Shoemaker and Faustini craters located at 87.2 degrees South and 68 degrees East lunar co-ordinates. The backup landing site is near the de Gerlach crater located 88.5 degrees South and 297 degrees East lunar co-ordinates.

The above work seems to be purely Russian. I am not sure if ISRO has yet been consulted on the project but the lander being a Russian component, the landing may also be of their choosing. The reference to the Indian rover as only a political payload was unnecessary. They said that about MIP on Chandrayaan-I in 2007, if I recollect. Maybe its for good luck.