India’s space missions spark science funding debate

[NEW DELHI] Scientists in India have applauded the launch of a probe to study the sun following the country’s historic lunar landing, but question the implications for broader science funding.

Days after its successful landing on the unexplored south pole of the moon, India’s space agency set off another probe on Saturday (2 September), this time to study the sun.

Named Aditya-L1, after the Hindi name for the sun, it will have the advantage of continuously viewing the sun without any eclipses. The probe will also be able to observe solar activities and their effect on space weather in real time, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) stated on its website.

The back-to-back space probes have cast India as a leading player in space exploration, with the ISRO hailed globally for its relatively low budget lunar landing, as compared to missions by USChina and Russia.

India is reported to have budgeted US$46 million for the sun probe mission while its Chandrayaan-3 lunar mission was done on a relatively low starting budget of US$75 million.

But the elation in India evoked by the successful space exploration missions has some scientists wondering whether if it will come at a cost for less headline-grabbing science.

Over the years, the scientific community in India has often expressed concerns about the lack of desired budgetary provisions for science.

“I don’t see any contradiction in a country pursuing a space programme and also develop plans to sort out its societal problems. The two are not mutually exclusive.”

Ghose said that the promotion of science and technology across the board has many knock-on effects.

“These go beyond immediate technological gains – indigenous space technology directly improving weather forecasting and communication,” he explained.

“There are also fundamental scientific gains – say detecting water on the moon or signs of biological life on Mars. The latter kind, though not of immediate use to alleviate the myriad issues of a developing country, may have a significant impact in the future.”

Space research, according to Dey, is important and has tangible practical benefits in areas such as defence, surveying and climate prediction.

“Also, it is one of the few things that can actually bind the entire country, and make all of us proud,” he added.

“Particularly given the extremely high cost-efficiency of our space programme, I think that it is more than justified.”

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