India space probe seeks fusion power source on moon

By MARTIN SIEFF   |   Oct. 22, 2008 at 11:07 AM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 22 (UPI) -- India took a giant leap into the global space club Wednesday when its Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft blasted off on the country's first mission to the moon.

Chandrayaan-1 is unmanned, but its mission is long, complex and important. It will follow in the footsteps of the cost-effective and highly successful 1994 U.S. Clementine Deep Space Program Science Experiment that pioneered geologically mapping the moon.

The Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft will be prospecting from close lunar orbit for helium-3, a rare isotope that is regarded as the best hope for a future practical, cheap and safe, almost limitless fusion power source that could replace current fossil fuels, including oil. Scientists believe the moon may have far greater and easily available reservoirs of it in its surface crust than the Earth. Another mission priority will be to try to locate water on the barren lunar surface.

The Chandrayaan-1 launch is also a major morale boost for the world's second most populous nation after its fellow Asian nation China in September celebrated its first ever manned space walk.

India's Polar Launch Vehicle, the PSLV-C11, was successfully launched from Sriharikota island off the coast of southern Andhra Pradesh state by the Indian Space Research Organization. The lunar mission spacecraft weighs 3,042 pounds.

It has 11 different operating programs or experiments. Only five of them were created by India. In another boost to Indian prestige, the spacecraft will be carrying two payloads from the United States and three from the European Space Agency as well as another from Bulgaria.

Chandrayaan-1 is designed to operate for two and a half years. Because of the moon's very low gravity, it will be able to orbit as low as only 62 miles above the lunar surface, the Press Trust of India said.

Only Russia, the United States, China and Japan have launched successful lunar probes.

Chandrayaan-1 reflects India's space ambitions, but also its limitations. India already has logged up impressive achievements in producing its own, domestically built prototype intermediate-range ballistic missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles and anti-ballistic missile interceptors.

However, India's Defense Research and Development Organization has had a miserable record in advancing its often highly impressive prototype and pure research programs into operationally reliable, production-line weapons systems. India increasingly has had to turn to buying advanced weapons systems such as submarines, aircraft carriers, combat aircraft and cruise missiles off the shelf from its longtime ally Russia, or manufacturing cruise missiles and other weapons in co-production partnerships with the Kremlin.

Also, India does not come close to China's capability to already send reliably manned spaceships into orbit, bring them down to Earth and -- like the United States and Russia -- have astronauts walk in space and carry out procedures there.

India's most optimistic timeline for putting its own astronauts into low-Earth orbit is still six years from now. The Indians will not be able to contemplate a manned mission around the moon until 2020. The Chinese already have a manned spacecraft large enough to carry the necessary provisions and oxygen for such a mission. They could have a rocket powerful enough to do the job by 2010, a full decade ahead of the Indians.

Skeptics argue that in a time of world economic upheaval there should be no place for the expense and danger of space flight. They also claim that in a country where hundreds of millions of people remain dirt-poor and uneducated, it is a huge misapplication of resources.

The answer to that objection is simple: If the Indian space exploration and research program were to be canceled, the suffering of the nation's poor would not be eased one iota.

As the U.S. space program experience has shown over the past 50 years, a major commitment to developing space exploration and technologies dramatically boosts overall technological capability in the nation that funds it. The U.S. domestic economy and high-tech sectors received decades-long boosts from serious space investment and research.

Further, Chandrayaan-1's mission is not pie-in-the-sky idealism: It is focused on the practical priority of finding precious minerals and potential fuel for fusion power programs that could alleviate India's current massive dependence on imported oil, environmentally polluting coal and potentially dangerous fission-powered nuclear reactors.

Chandrayaan-1's successful launch is certainly a reason for Indian national pride and rejoicing. But it is also a practical, hard-headed investment in the nation's future that could benefit the whole world.

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