Saturday, October 2, 2010

China launches second unmanned mission to the moon--Chang'e 2

         On Friday I had two dreams---one of attending the variety entertainment programme in the evening at the prestigious JB Petit High School For Girls where my daughter, Rimanika, studies, and the other of watching the live telecast of the launch of China's second unmanned mission to the moon, Chang'e 2. A girls' school and a rocket. Yes, both are unconnected. The school means a lot to me because of its extremely homely atmosphere and also I am a space addict.

        The much-awaited JB programme was scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. at the Birla Mathurshi hall in Marine Lines which means I would have to leave home at about 4.30 p.m. in order to catch the bus. This was the exact lift off time of Chang'e 2. How can I manage both, I wondered. I took a shot in the dark. At about 4.15 p.m. I accessed CCTV--the Chinese TV channel--through Google which instantly took me to the Xichang launch centre in China.

         There it was. I could see the 10-storeyed tall Long March 3C rocket which will carry the lunar orbiter. Chang'e-2 weighing 2.48 tonnes during launch, to the moon. All systems were a `go' for launch. Though there was a lot of  buffering I was still glued to the computer. The moment for lift off was nearing and then at 4.31 p.m. sharp the countdown ended, the rocket sprang into life and lifted off. As I watched it soaring higher and higher being carried in a yellowish plume, the buffering started again and I deactivated my computer.

         After the launch, the Chinese TV issued a flash saying: ``CHINA ANNOUNCES LAUNCH OF CHANG'E-2 A COMPLETE SUCCESS.''

         The commentary said that though it disappeared out of sight a few seconds after lift off because of the clouds---the same thing which happened to Chandrayaan-1--the telemetry and tracking data were normal. It's lift off velocity was 2.0 kms per second which was gradually increasing.  There were three tracking ships in the Pacific Ocean.

        I informed my good friend, Pradeep Mohandas, who said he could not watch the telecast because he was at that very moment leaving for an official assignment. I am sorry that he missed the flight!!!!  Better luck for Chang'e-3 in 2013-2015.

          The CCTV gave me a clear view of the mission operations control room with several young scientists and engineers wearing a blue dress staring at their computer screens monitoring data. It was an exciting, thrilling and dramatic build up towards the launch, For example 1 could see a young scientist calling out the coutndown and finally pressing the red launch button--an action which I have never seen in any of the Indian TV channels during a rocket launch at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre

         Since there was a lot of buffering, I switched off the computer , rushed to the bus stop and managed to reach the hall for the JB show well in advance.

          Back home, around 10 p.m. I switched on the computer again. accessed CCTV and got the latest update of Chang'e 2. It was doing fine.

          For a little bit of background, the Chang'e lunar exploration programme was initiated on January 23,2004. The project envisages three phases---orbiting, landing and sample return. The first spacecraft under this moon mission, Chang'e-1 was an unmanned lunar orbiter which was launched on October 24,2007. India must emulate the example of China atleast in this respect by working out a clear road map of its lunar programme post Chandrayaan-2. We, including Isro officials themselves, still do not know what is the future of the country's lunar projects after Chandrayaan-2 slated for launch in 2013.

         Costing over 134 million dollars with a six-month life span, Chang'e-2 is expected to reach the lunar orbit in 112 hours or five days. In contrast Chang'e-1 took 12 days to reach the lunar orbit. According to space officials, the Chang'e-2 flight is split into three phases. These are the launch, the moon orientation phase and the moon orbiting phase. During the moon orientation phase, Chang'e-2s solar panels deployed and antennas unfolded. Interestingly, the monitoring cameras on board the spacecraft imaged these developments.

         As it moves closer to the lunar orbit, the spacecraft's speed will be reduced to enable it to fly into the 100 kms lunar orbit above the moon's surface. It will complete a single orbit in 117 minutes. Once in this orbit, it will take high resolution images of the Bay of Rainbows which is expected to be the landing zone of Chang'e-3.The images will be of 10 meters.This is because it has a charged couple device camera.

         Chief engineer of China's Lunar Exploration Programme, Wu Weiren, in an interview to Chinese TV has highlighted some of the significant features of the Chang'e-2 mission.

         * For the first time a new method of flying in space is being experimented. With a powerful rocket, Chang'e-2 is being taken directly to the moon transfer orbit or the moon orientation phase. On account of this,the flying time has been reduced by as much as 50 per cent as compared to Chang'e-1. Chief designer of rocket systems, Cen Zheng, has explained that the Long March 3-C rocket was chosen for the Chang'e-2 mission because ``its technology has been quite mature. It was tested four times successfully prior to Chang'e-1.''

         * While taking high resolution images, the spacecraft will descend from 100 kms to 15 kms above the lunar surface. Coming so close to the moon, without actually landing is considered by space experts an achievement.          

         Chang'e-2 will conduct research within the moon's orbit to assess the landing spots for the soft landing of Chang'e -3 and Chang'e-4 both of which have rovers, according to Chinese space officials being quoted on Chinese TV. A pics of the rover was also shown on TV. 

         With five payloads, the scientific objectives include investigating the lunar landscape and studying the geological structure of the moon, The mission will also examine the material composition of the moon and hunt for usable resources.

         Chief designer of Chang'e-2 Huang Jiangchuan, said that at present three possible scenarios are being evaluated for an extra mission, but nothing as yet has been firmed up. These are:-

         *Staying in the lunar orbit, continuing to transfer data back to the earth and then landing on the moon as an experiment for future lunar probes.

        * Chang'e-2 will depart from the earth-moon system and zoom into outer space to test China's capability to probe further into space. It will be a test run for a deep space mission.

        * The third will be a home coming. This would mean changing its orbit to turn into an earth orbiter.

        On the launch, chief spokesperson of Isro, S.Satish, told ``Beyond Moon and Mars.'' that it something welcome bacause it will guarantee a constant interest in the moon. ``We are happy that they are launching such missions instead of stopping just after one or two,'' he added.

        Quite a bold message to our government!





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