The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has achieved a major milestone in its Chandrayaan 3 mission by successfully maneuvering the spacecraft’s Propulsion Module from lunar orbit back to an orbit around Earth. This demonstration of technology shows ISRO’s growing capabilities for undertaking more complex Moon missions in the future.
Propulsion Module Completes Key Orbital Transfer Demonstration
On December 5th, 2023, ISRO announced that the Chandrayaan 3 Propulsion Module had fired its engines to move from its initial orbital path around the Moon to a new stable orbit around Earth. This orbital transfer acts as an important technology and operations demonstration for future spacecraft looking to return lunar samples or other payloads back to Earth.
By successfully completing this orbital maneuver, the Propulsion Module shows that India now has the capability to:
- Insert a spacecraft into lunar orbit from Earth orbit
- Make orbital adjustments at the Moon if needed
- Perform a trans-lunar injection back to Earth orbit
These are all crucial components of more ambitious Moon missions that involve collecting samples from the lunar surface and returning them to Earth for analysis.
|Insertion into lunar orbit
|Orbital corrections at Moon
|Firing engine for return transit
|Capture into Earth orbit
Lead Up to Orbital Transfer
The Chandrayaan 3 mission is ISRO’s third attempt to land a rover on the lunar surface after its previous Chandrayaan 2 mission came heartbreakingly close but ultimately crashed in 2019.
While the new Chandrayaan 3 lander is still aiming to touchdown on the Moon later in 2023, its Propulsion Module recently completed this important detour to demonstrate technology for future sample return missions.
After launching in August 2022, the Propulsion Module entered an initial orbit around the Earth along with the Chandrayaan 3 lander and rover. It later fired its engines to insert the whole spacecraft into a lunar transfer trajectory.
In November 2022, the combined spacecraft arrived in lunar orbit, allowing the Propulsion Module to be tested in the lunar environment. All systems performed well over the past year.
Execution of Orbital Transfer
With the Propulsion Module functioning normally in lunar orbit, ISRO made the decision to have it break away from the lander and conduct an orbital transfer as a major test of India’s Moon mission capabilities.
After separating, the Propulsion Module used its onboard engines to fire for roughly 5 minutes – just enough to slow down and transition from the Moon’s gravitational pull into a new orbit around Earth.
The Propulsion Module will have to perform similar engine burns when the time comes for India to attempt an ambitious lunar sample return mission. Mastering this orbital transfer is key to developing the technology to bring Moon rock and soil samples back to Earth laboratories for analysis.
|Propulsion Module Specs
|240 Newton Liquid Engine + 8 x 22 Newton Thrusters
|Monomethylhydrazine + Mixed Oxides of Nitrogen
|2 Solar Panels Generating 375W
By demonstrating this orbital maneuver now, ISRO can keep pushing the readiness of its systems for when that historic first Indian lunar sample return mission gets the green light in the coming years.
Significance and Future Impact
Returning the Chandrayaan 3 Propulsion Module back to Earth orbit will provide a trove of engineering data to aid in the design of future Moon missions.
ISRO now has hard evidence that its propulsion technology works reliably not just in lunar orbit, but also for the crucial RETURN journey back to Earth orbit – a very difficult task.
Future spacecraft needing to build on this capability, like landers, orbiters, or sample return vehicles, can leverage lessons from the Propulsion Module’s trailblazing test flight.
Having this new confidence and data on performing lunar orbit transfers may prompt ISRO to accelerate its plans for more complex Moon sample return missions:
- Chandrayaan 4 – Planned orbiter & lander to demonstrate soft landing
- Chandrayaan 5 – Attempt to return lunar samples from South Pole
- Chandrayaan 6 – Explore permanently shadowed craters for water ice
As ISRO Chairman S. Somanath said, this successful orbital transfer using the Chandrayaan 3 Propulsion Module "paves the way for more future moon missions."
With its test flight complete, the Chandrayaan 3 Propulsion Module will remain in Earth orbit for a few weeks before engineers command it to make a destructive re-entry through the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, the Chandrayaan 3 lander and rover will continue working toward attempting India’s first-ever soft lunar landing later in 2023. The systems demonstrated by the Propulsion Module provide enhanced support for control teams to adjust the spacecraft’s descent if needed.
If Chandrayaan 3’s lander, named Vikram, successfully touches down on the lunar surface this time, India will finally achieve its goal of delivering a rover to explore the Moon’s perplexing water ice deposits.
As the Propulsion Module’s Earth orbit insertion shows, the capabilities to pull off an ambitious Moon sample return mission are steadily maturing. Its contributions keep expanding what’s possible for ISRO’s lunar exploration program during this new golden age of satellites probing the secrets of the Moon.
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