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In 2023, Indian science went for the Moon and reached for the Sun. What’s planned for 2024?

Context- In 2023, Indian science celebrated a significant achievement with a successful Moon landing. This marked a pivotal moment for India’s space programme, as the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) transitioned from a satellite-launching agency to a comprehensive planetary exploration entity.

ISRO had a highly productive year, executing seven successful missions, including the notable Chandrayaan-3 and Aditya-L1, India’s inaugural mission to the Sun. These accomplishments ended a period of relative inactivity caused by the Covid pandemic, which had notably delayed the Gaganyaan human spaceflight mission, now rescheduled for 2025.

Looking ahead, ISRO has outlined an ambitious set of goals. These include sending an astronaut to the International Space Station in collaboration with NASA in 2024, launching Chandrayaan-4, a Moon sample return mission, within the next four years, establishing the Bhartiya Antariksh Station by 2028, and aiming for a manned Moon landing by 2040.

These plans are in addition to ISRO’s regular launches, astronomy missions, and exploratory missions to the Sun, Mars, and Venus.

Chandrayaan-3

  • Several of ISRO’s future plans were solidified following the successful moon landing of Chandrayaan-3 in August. Despite the United States and the former Soviet Union having made moon landings commonplace in the 1960s and 1970s, India’s accomplishment is no less significant.
  • To date, only two other countries – China and India – have managed to reach the Moon in the five decades since.
  • The success of Chandrayaan-3 was particularly sweet, given that India’s initial attempt, Chandrayaan-2 in 2019, had failed in the final moments of its descent. However, this time, ISRO achieved a flawless landing.
  • Once on the Moon, Chandrayaan-3 executed unanticipated maneuvers, showcasing ISRO’s capabilities and signaling its intent to embark on more complex missions. The most surprising of these was the ‘hop’ experiment, where the entire Chandrayaan-3 lander, along with its instruments, jumped on the Moon’s surface, elevating itself about 40 cm and landing 30-40 cm away.
  • This demonstrated ISRO’s ability to lift the lander off the Moon’s surface, a crucial requirement for sample return or manned missions that need to return to Earth. Consequently, ISRO announced a few weeks later that Chandrayaan-4 would be a sample return mission.

New partnerships

  • ISRO’s expanding capabilities have led to an increase in international collaborations. During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States in June, India became a signatory to the US-led Artemis Accords for planetary exploration.
  • These accords are a set of principles that nations commit to for peaceful and cooperative exploration of the Moon and other celestial bodies. India’s participation in the Artemis Accords has brought the space programs of the two nations closer than ever before.
  • Another testament to this strengthened partnership is the agreement between ISRO and NASA to launch a joint mission to the International Space Station, a permanent space laboratory located about 400 km above the Earth, in 2024. This means that Indian astronauts will venture into space earlier than the planned Gaganyaan mission of 2025.
  • Later in the year, India and the US established a working group for commercial space collaboration, expected to stimulate the private space industry in India. The two nations also expressed their intent to collaborate on planetary defense.

National Research Foundation

  • As ISRO was making significant strides in space exploration, the government took a crucial step to enhance the scope and quality of scientific research in the country. Fulfilling a promise made five years prior, the government sanctioned the National Research Foundation (NRF) to finance, foster, and guide research endeavors.
  • The NRF, modeled after the National Science Foundation in the United States, is set to provide research funding of Rs 50,000 crore over the next five years. Its most significant commitment, however, lies in its mission to bolster research capabilities in universities and colleges.
  • Spenta Wadia, the founding director of the Bengaluru-based International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, a center of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, noted an unfortunate divide between research and higher education in the country. He emphasized that one of NRF’s goals is to enhance research capacities in universities, thereby bridging this gap.
  • The NRF aims to promote research not only in natural sciences and engineering but also in social sciences, arts, and humanities. One of its primary objectives is to address significant challenges facing Indian society.

New initiatives

  • The year witnessed India making significant strides in pioneering areas of scientific research. In April, it initiated the National Quantum Mission, a Rs 6,000-crore project aimed at constructing a 1,000-qubit quantum computer within the next eight years.
  • Quantum computers, which leverage the quantum mechanical properties of matter at a microscopic scale, can perform tasks that are unfeasible or inefficient for traditional computers.
  • The launch of the National Quantum Mission positions India in the global technology development race at an early stage, a departure from its usual late entry, as seen in the development of supercomputers. This early involvement allows India to benefit from the spin-off advantages of technology development.
  • Another key decision was the approval of the LIGO-India project to establish a gravitational wave observatory in Maharashtra. This project, which had received initial approval seven years prior, finally got the green light in April.
  • LIGO-India will serve as the third arm of two similar observatories in the United States, which first detected gravitational waves in 2015, earning the Nobel Prize in Physics two years later. With few current players and facilities in gravitational wave research, India has the chance to emerge as a leader in this field.
  • Towards the end of the year, India announced plans to establish a new research station, Maitri-II, in Antarctica to replace the aging Maitri station. Located a few kilometers from the existing station, which has been operational since 1989, Maitri-II, along with another operational station called Bharati, will expand India’s research presence in Antarctica.
  • Following the announcement of Maitri-II, India decided to send its first winter expedition to the Arctic region. Similar to Antarctica, India has a research base in the Arctic, which will now be manned year-round.
  • In the meantime, the government introduced new national awards for scientists, known as the Rashtriya Vigyan Puraskar. These awards, which replace the previously scrapped awards, including the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prizes, India’s top science prize, include categories for lifetime achievement, scientists of any age, and team or collaborative efforts.

In the new year

  • The highly anticipated NASA-ISRO Satellite Aperture Radar (NISAR) is slated for launch in the first quarter of the upcoming year, followed by a test flight of Gaganyaan, sans astronauts.
  • Meanwhile, the effects of the National Research Foundation (NRF) are expected to become noticeable. Despite a substantial pool of science and engineering graduates, an extensive network of laboratories and research institutions, and active participation in high-quality scientific research, India trails several countries on numerous research metrics.
  • India allocates a mere 0.65% of its GDP to scientific research, significantly lower than the global average of 1.79%. Women constitute only 18% of India’s total scientific researchers, compared to the global figure of 33%.
  • Furthermore, the number of researchers per million population in India, at 262, is considerably lower than that in developing countries like Brazil (888), South Africa (484), or Mexico (349). The NRF’s performance will be evaluated based on its ability to enhance these indicators.

Conclusion- The year marked a significant shift in India’s scientific landscape, with ISRO making remarkable strides in space exploration and the government bolstering scientific research through initiatives like the NRF. The successful moon landing of Chandrayaan-3, the launch of the National Quantum Mission, and the approval of the LIGO-India project underscored India’s growing capabilities in frontier areas of scientific research.

The journey ahead is challenging, but the potential for breakthroughs and discoveries is immense. India is poised at the threshold of a new era in science and technology, ready to make its mark on the global stage.

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