India May Join U.S. MoonRise Mission


NEW DELHI—India hopes to join the United States on a sample return mission to the moon, according to K. Radhakrishnan, chair of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). He announced that India's policy group, the Space Commission, decided on 12 February to give the go-ahead for work on a possible contribution to MoonRise, a U.S. effort to land a probe on the moon's surface, scoop up 1 kilogram of material, and return it to Earth for analysis. India would provide an orbiter similar to its observation satellite Chandrayaan-1, which in 2009 helped clinch evidence of water's presence on the moon.

The new Indian instrument would circle the moon for a few years and aid in communications and imaging. ISRO hopes to invest $38 million on developing this 400 to 500 kg instrument, which would travel into space on a U.S. Atlas rocket.

The mission leader, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is planning for a launch in 2016, but has not yet selected the MoonRise instruments. The goal is to learn more about the geology and origins of the moon. According to NASA, the mission will "focus on the giant South Pole-Aitken (SPA) basin on the far side, which lies between the moon's South Pole and Aitken crater. ... The SPA basin is the oldest, deepest observable impact basin on the moon and ranks among the largest recognized impact structures in the solar system," (shown in the image).

ISRO's involvement has more than technical significance: It would underline a change in Indo-U.S. security relations. Until recently, U.S. labs and companies were prohibited from exchanging technologies with ISRO, in an attempt to limit their use for military purposes. But the two countries have been moving closer in recent years, and barriers have been coming down. In November, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and U.S. President Barack Obama met in New Delhi and agreed to become strategic partners. The countries may be ready to join hands on a major space mission.