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Chandrayaan-3 and much more

Besides ISRO’s milestones in space exploration, 2023 saw several scientific leaps

Chandrayaan-3 and much more

Lunar success: The soft landing of Chandrayaan-3 was easily the most significant achievement of Indian science and engineering this year. ANI

Dinesh C. Sharma

Science commentator

THE Apollo 11 Lunar Module, which carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon, was equipped with a black-and-white television camera. It transmitted live video signals to the earth, allowing people to witness the historic moment of the astronauts descending on the moon on July 20, 1969. The moment captivated audiences worldwide, with about 530 million people watching it live on their TV sets. It was not only a significant moment for space exploration but also a milestone in television history. Something similar happened over half a century later in India on August 23, 2023, when Chandrayaan-3 landed on the moon. It broke all records of viewership on YouTube with 8.09 million people watching it live on their digital devices. This is an all-time record of viewership of a live stream on YouTube, according to data released last week.

A big-ticket project was the National Quantum Mission aimed at developing quantum computers based on superconducting and photonic platforms.

The soft landing of Chandrayaan-3 was easily the most significant achievement of Indian science and engineering in 2023, for which thousands of scientists worked several years. The lunar success was closely followed by another high-profile mission, Aditya L1, to study the sun. The last manoeuvre that will insert the satellite — launched in September 2023 — into its final parking place will take place on January 6. Besides the lunar and solar missions, ISRO executed several other important projects, including the testing of the technology demonstrator of Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV-TD); the launch of the first in the second-generation navigation satellite series, NVS-01; and the testing of the crew escape module for the human space mission, Gaganyaan.

The year also saw important happenings beyond the space sector. The much-awaited Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO-India) project was finally given the go-ahead and work started for its construction at Hingoli in Maharashtra. It will be one of the few gravitational wave observatories in the world with an extremely sensitive 4-km-long interferometer arm. The observatory will be designed to detect gravitational waves generated during the merger of massive astrophysical objects like black holes and neutron stars. It will work in sync with two such observatories operating in America. Another big-ticket project of the year was the National Quantum Mission aimed at developing intermediate-scale quantum computers based on superconducting and photonic platforms. A national programme on artificial intelligence was rolled out for developing AI-based solutions and ensuring responsible use of the technology.

Away from the limelight and headlines, several Indian laboratories reported significant research work. S Manu and G Umapathy from the Hyderabad-based Laboratory for the Conservation of Endangered Species at CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology developed a new method to assess biodiversity in ecosystems by sequencing the DNA fragments found in samples of water, soil or air. Scientists at the National Dairy Research Institute, Karnal, cloned a cow of the indigenous Gir breed — a development vital to boosting milk production. A group led by Gyaneshwar Chaubey at Banaras Hindu University brought to light a new angle in the genetic landscape of South Asia. Their study found a close genetic affinity of the Sinhalese with Sri Lankan Tamils, irrespective of their linguistic affiliation, and also traces of common roots of Sinhala with the Maratha population. On the Covid-19 front, Pune-based Gennova Biopharmaceuticals released an indigenously developed mRNA vaccine for the Omicron variant.

A keenly watched development on the policy front was the Bill passed for the creation of the National Research Foundation as an umbrella body for research funding, though the finer details are yet to be made public. At the same time, there were disconcerting developments like the closure of Vigyan Prasar, the science communication arm of the government; curtailment of funds for the Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA), which organises the annual Indian Science Congress; abolition of several science awards; and removal of lessons relating to evolution from science textbooks for secondary grades.

Due to the withdrawal of support from the Department of Science and Technology (DST), the science congress will not be held in the first week of January. The ISCA has accused the DST of interfering with its autonomy. Apparently, the DST did not like ISCA’s decision to hold the session at Phagwara (near Jalandhar) instead of Lucknow. The 2023 session was held in Nagpur. On the other hand, various scientific departments have been liberally sponsoring the annual science festival organised by an RSS affiliate, Vigyan Bharti, in January for the past few years.

The ISCA affair is indicative of the onslaught on the functional autonomy of national laboratories and academic institutions. Unfortunately, most institutions are not only falling in line but going overboard to please their political masters. For instance, the CSIR laboratory in Lucknow — the National Botanical Research Institute — developed a variety of the lotus with 108 petals and named it ‘Namoh 108’.

Minister of State for Science and Technology Jitendra Singh, who was invited to unveil the new variety, declared that “considering the religious importance of the lotus flower and the digit 108, this combination gives an important identity to this variety.” He dedicated it to the PM, saying that it was “a grand gift to the relentless zeal and innate beauty of Shri Narendra Modi.” Another CSIR institute says it has developed a tobacco variety with low nicotine content. The research work was inspired by the PM, according to CSIR Director General N Kalaiselvi. The Chandrayaan modules introduced by the National Council for Educational Research and Training give credit to the PM for the success of Chandrayaan-3. Supposedly independent bodies like the Indian National Science Academy are maintaining stoic silence on issues affecting academic freedom, institutional autonomy and the promotion of the scientific temper.

If Chandrayaan-3’s success was a new high during 2023, the politicisation of scientific institutions was a new low. 

#Chandrayaan #ISRO

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