India completes lunar landing with space probe

India recently became only the fourth nation to land successfully on the moon and the first to land and deploy a rover in the southern polar region, an area of keen scientific interest.

Tarun Khanna, director of the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute and Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor at Harvard Business School, has been studying and writing about India’s space program for many years and is part of a space research working group led Professor Matt Weinzierl.

The Chandrayaan-3 landing is important because it is a part of the moon that has never been landed upon, and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) did it.

India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission landed on the moon on Aug. 23, touching down on the lunar soil after a 20-minute, nail-biting finale watched by millions of people across the world.

“There have been a bunch of agencies, the Russians, the Chinese, NASA at one point, who’ve all been interested in going there. And prior studies have revealed frozen water in that part of the moon,” said Khanna, who has been working on entrepreneurial solutions to the problems of economic development for decades.

“It’s been really inaccessible, but as you can imagine, if there is water in quantity there, then it opens up the possibilities for eventually a habitat of some sort, maybe breaking down the water into its constituent elements so you would have energy as well,” said Khanna. “That’s very attractive. There was an attempt by Russia to land just a few days ago, and it failed in the last stages. So this is a great science and engineering step forward.”

Hours after reaching the lunar surface, the Pragyaan rover – Pragyaan is the Sanskrit word for wisdom – exited the lander and took its first steps on the Moon.

ISRO said that a laser detector onboard had made “the first-ever in-situ – in the original space – measurements on the elemental composition of the surface near the south pole” and found a host of chemicals, including sulphur and oxygen, on lunar soil.

The instrument “unambiguously confirms” the presence of sulphur, it said, adding that preliminary analysis also “unveiled the presence of aluminium, calcium, iron, chromium, titanium, manganese, silicon and oxygen”.

“A thorough investigation regarding the presence of hydrogen is underway,” the space agency added.

“The moon landing is a culmination of decades of work by Indian scientists,” said Khanna. “Beyond space, India has become one of the largest producers of vaccines, which of course was relevant during the pandemic and is likely going to be more and more relevant as we have more of those episodes in the future.”

“Similarly, India is a pioneer in the creation of so-called digital public goods, building on its universal biometric identity initiative, which no nation has been able to replicate,” said Khanna. “To me, as an immigrant in the 1980s in America, physical highways and public libraries seemed to me the greatest form of public goods. Now digital public goods are the modern equivalent.”

Khanna said that India uses more data per capita than any country in the world.

“If you added the per capita data consumption of the U.S. and China, India’s would exceed it substantially,” said Khanna. “This is because data use is the cheapest in India partly because of the system’s technological underpinnings.”

“(India remains) a very poor country. It’s encouraging nonetheless that several scientists across several domains have been able to compete and collaborate with the best,” said Khanna. “This is going to be really important as we confront adapting to climate change, an area the Mittal Institute is exploring in a deep way with the Salata Institute.”

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