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Limelight | Dr. Jiten Goswami

Homanga Bharadwaj

Dr. Jitendra Nath Goswami was the Chief Scientist of India’s path-breaking Chandrayaan-1 mission. He served as the director of the Physical Research Laboratory and has also been closely associated with Chandrayaan-2 and the Mangalayaan mission. A 2017 Padma Shri awardee, Dr. Jiten Goswami’s contribution to the field of science and technology in India set great precedents and he is considered to be one of the greatest minds in India and in the international forum alike.

Recently, Chandraayan-1 was discovered by NASA after a period of 8 years. Could you tell us how this was achieved, and what problems were faced by ISRO in trying to do so? Also, as the mission had to be aborted prematurely, what impact did it have on the objectives that had to be met, and the future missions to be initiated?

Chandrayaan-1, that completed its mission in 2009, was placed on a polar orbit around the moon. It is no longer active and its detection is not easy. In the absence of a lunar atmosphere, Chandrayaan-1 can continue to orbit the moon for a long time. However its orbit can be affected by the uneven gravitational pull on the spacecraft as it moves over plains, depressions, and elevated regions on the moon.

A NASA team recently pointed a strong radar beam ~160 km above the lunar North Pole to see if Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft may be detected. Signature of a small spacecraft was found twice during four hours of observations and matched expectations for the polar orbiting Chandrayaan-1.

There was no impact on the scientific outcome of the Chandrayaan-1 mission due to termination of the mission after nearly a year in lunar orbit. Technical teams of Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) ensured that all the payloads (instruments) on board Chandrayaan-1 collect sufficient data to meet the desired scientific objectives. Moreover, the mission has several firsts to its credit that include discovery of water molecules in the lunar polar region.

The major reason for the delay in Chandraayan-2 mission has been the inability of Russia to develop the Lande And now, it is being developed by ISRO itself. Is there a reason why ISRO couldn’t take this decision in the beginning itself? Has this induced any significant changes in the mission profile?

Chandrayaan-2 was planned as an Orbiter-Lander-Rover mission. Russia, who has expertise in automated Lander and Rover systems for planetary exploration, was very keen to participate and it was proposed to be a joint Indo-Russian mission. It is not the inability of Russia to develop a Lander, but a failure of a major Russian space mission (Phobos-Grunt), in late 2011 that resulted in withdrawal of Russia from the Chandrayaan-2 project. ISRO decided to initiate its own technology development program for realization of the Lunar Lander and Rover. An indigenous Chandrayaan-2 (Orbiter, Lander and Rover) mission with a host of instruments, designed and developed in India, will be ready for launch within a couple of years.

The designing of the Chandraayan-2 Rover, which, as you said, was to take place in Russia, is now being done here, with IIT Kanpur developing a major chunk of the motion controlling subsystem Could you elaborate on what these subsystems are? Why is it that ISRO’s first action is to look elsewhere before tapping Indian talent?

To be self-reliant, ISRO has developed its own expertise in many aspects of space technology. The “look elsewhere” comment is misleading in the absence of any specifics. Indian Industries are making very significant contributions by providing important sub-systems and components needed for ISRO missions. I personally do not know the exact sub-systems that are being developed in various industries and also at places like IIT Kanpur. It will be good to have participation of academic institutes in ISRO projects and programs.

The Mangalyaan mission has constantly been riddled with criticism, most notably from the scientific community. While fact remains that, “The [making of the] Hollywood movie Gravity cost more than our Mars mission,” and that it was completed in a period of just three years, what new data has it given us, and what is the quality of this data? How is this helping our research?

The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) was primarily a technology demonstration mission. Placing a satellite around Mars is a very difficult task, and ISRO could achieve this in its very first attempt. Time magazine labeled MOM as one of the best inventions of 2014. Payloads (instruments) on MOM documented many interesting surface features of Mars and also probed Mars’ exosphere (the outer layers of Mars’ atmosphere) and obtained new information that are reported in international journals of repute.

I am not aware of specific criticism of the Mangalyaan mission from the scientific community. However, such comments and criticism may be communicated to ISRO and/or can be put in public domain through publication in academic journals (e.g. “Current Science”). Unbiased and open scientific discussion will be very helpful in planning future space exploration activities.

Former ISRO chairmen like K Kasturirangan and Shri G. Madhavan Nair had always pushed forward for earth-centric missions that are directly useful for the country’s economy, rather than “fanciful” space explorations. This was also a part of Nair’s criticism when Mangalyaan was launched. To what extent do you agree with the “factoid” that ISRO hasn’t spent its money responsibly, even if Mangalyaan cost 10% of its total budget? Do you agree that the project could have been more useful, had we used better instruments and more payloads?

The primary aim of ISRO is to focus on programs that are directly relevant to countries need, in particular, Satellite Remote Sensing & Satellite Communication, and ISRO has to be       earth-centric and is doing its best in these fronts. To initiate any new activity, ISRO has to consider several aspects: need, resource availability, technical competence, and a viable long-term plan. Dr. K. Kasturirangan, Chairman, ISRO initiated discussion sessions on the possibility of a Moon mission in 1997, I attended several of these, and, the Chandrayaan-1 mission was approved in 2003. The next ISRO Chairman, Shri G. Madhavan Nair, guided this highly successful mission having international participation, with a very reasonable budget.

Budgetary allocations for ISRO during the last two years were ~7000 and ~7500 crores, respectively. The allocation for Planetary and Space Exploration is much less than 10 percent on a yearly basis. In view of the improved economic state of the country, an increased budgetary support will enable India’s “Space Exploration” program to scale new heights.

I cannot comment on handling of financial resources by ISRO. However, more “payload” (instruments) is not a good criteria, it has to be better payloads that will reveal new facts to further our understanding of the natural phenomena taking place in our solar system and beyond.

Recently, after ISRO had launched 104 satellites on a single rocket in the first go itself, Indian cartoonists had a perfect reply to The New York Times cartoon (released just after Mangalyaan’s launch) that had mocked our achievement From your interactions with scientists from various countries, to what degree do you think there exists close-mindedness and/or racism towards their Indian counterparts, if at all? How does it affect our growth in the research sector?

New York Times mocked India’s Mars mission achievement.

If we go back to the eighties (in the last century), the sign of “close mindedness” was often visible whenever there was discussion on “science”, or even “social” issues. I also recall how people in advanced countries were a bit surprised when somebody in India could achieve certain breakthroughs with limited resources and facilities. However, this has changed over time and at present there is mutual respect and willingness for scientific and technical collaboration as well.

How do you compare the construction and testing facilities at different Indian space research centers to NASA, ROSCOSMOS, and the European Space Agency?

We are still far away from the level of construction and testing facilities in USA, Europe, Russia, China, and Japan. However, what we have at present is sufficient to maintain our progress in using space technology for the benefit of the country and also continue our modest space exploration program. We do need to improve our technological base and ISRO has long term plans to reach the desired goal. It will be a slow but steady progress.

In your long career as a leading figure in the Indian Space Program, what would you say could be done to encourage the brightest scientific minds of our country to work towards the development of our scientific culture? More specifically, it is a saddening fact — of the ISRO workforce, very few are IIT graduates. Most of them prefer to go abroad for research. What, in your opinion, should be done to retain these talents within our country?

I do agree that there is a need to attract the best minds to do front ranking studies/research in both academic and technology areas. To be frank, even though IIT graduates are considered the cream, ISRO primarily needs young competent people who are willing to learn and work in non-conventional areas, both as a challenge as well as for personal satisfaction. There is a need for broader discussion involving ISRO and high-ranking Academic Institutions in the country to address this issue. In fact, ISRO has made some efforts in this direction by establishing the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology.

Stephen Hawking, in his book A Brief History of Time, tells us how most of the thinkers and philosophers like Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, right up to the age of the French philosopher Rene Descartes, used science, mathematics and logic in order to further their philosophical thought, instead of merely making grand declarations about life and the universe. Would you agree with him on this, that science is the answer to everything, and that scientists are philosophers of a higher pedigree since they use logic, mathematics and science to answer the “grand questions of life”?

I admire Stephen Hawking greatly, and there is no doubt that science, mathematics and logic are essential to pursue philosophical thoughts at a higher level. However, we should not forget that some thoughts, based on intuition (which is difficult to quantify), or observations of the world around us, could be logical as well. I just cannot say “science” is the answer to everything. We have to prove it! We realized only recently that the visible universe account for merely 5% of the universe with dark energy and dark matter constituting the rest (95%) of the universe! It will take a while before humankind may unravel the mystery of our universe.

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