NEW DELHI--India has decided to send a spacecraft to orbit the moon and map its surface in detail. It's the country's first probe to venture beyond Earth orbit, allowing India to join a decade of lunar exploration that is due to begin next month with the launch of Europe's SMART 1 probe (Science, 2 May, p. 724).
"I am happy to announce that by 2008 India will send a mission to the moon," Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said on 15 August in his annual Independence Day anniversary address. And its name, Chandrayan Pratham (the first journey to the moon), signals the country's intention to launch additional missions.
The $100 million mission, proposed 4 years ago by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), will be placed in polar orbit 100 kilometers above the moon. The craft will deploy probes to explore the moon's composition in the visible, near infrared, low- and high-energy x-ray wavelengths. In addition to carrying payloads from several Indian labs, the 525 kilogram spacecraft will contain instruments from the Canadian and European space agencies.
Although most scientists applaud the government's endorsement of the mission, some worry that the country isn't doing enough to ensure an adequate supply of astronomers, astrophysicists, and other scientists to take full advantage of such an ambitious space effort. "You need young and dynamic researchers to sustain a program as farsighted as this," says Jayant Vishnu Narlikar, a theoretical astrophysicist and former director of the Inter University Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics in Pune.
Although ISRO has an annual budget of $600 million, it spends only about $2.5 million a year on extramural research. But V. Sundararamaiah, ISRO's scientific secretary, says the agency hopes to create a dozen or so junior research fellowships at select institutes and universities to serve the needs of its planetary exploration program.