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Chandrayaan 2: The rocket women behind India’s second moon mission

Muthayya Vanitha and Ritu Karidhal will be proud when the lander and rover onboard India’s second moon mission Chandrayaan-2 will separate from the spacecraft on Monday afternoon.

Muthayya is the director responsible for the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (Isro’s) Rs 978 crore project from start to finish and Ritu Karidhal is the mission director coordinating the injection of Chandrayaan-2 into orbit.

Both Muthayya and Karidhal, Chandrayaan-2 is not the only project they have been involved with at the space agency.

Muthayya worked as the deputy project director on the first Indian remote sensing satellite used for mapping (Cartosat 1), the second ocean application satellite (Oceansat 2), and the Indo-French satellite for studying the water cycle and energy exchanges in the tropics (Megha-Tropiques).

An electronics system engineer from the UR Rao Satellite Centre, Muthayya specialises in digital signal processing and has written numerous papers on satellite communications. She received the best woman scientist award from the Astronautical Society of India in 2006. The science journal Nature has named her as one of the five scientists to watch out for in 2019.

It’s the same for Isro scientist Karidhal. She was the deputy operations director for Mangalyaan, India’s Mars mission.

“Since my childhood, I realised that science was not just a subject for me, it was a passion. Presently I am working on Chandrayaan 2, this is the first Indian lunar mission where a rover will rove on the lunar surface. When you are passionate about something, it just keeps you going, it doesn’t matter who is in front of you or what obstacles come — that all doesn’t matter,” Karidhal said in a video for Google India.

She studied aerospace engineering at the Indian Institute of Science and received ISRO’s young scientist award in 2007.

The scientist says the right kind of support will help women who want to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

“My advice to young girls is to pursue your dreams and passions without worrying about any problems. Don’t give up your dreams. For parents, they should support their daughters, believe me, they will make you proud.”

Dr M Annadurai, former director of the ISRO satellite centre in Bengaluru, said women have led various satellite launches in the past, but this is the first time that both the mission director and project director of such a huge project are women.

“Vanitha was appointed last year. It is good to see more and more women taking up leadership roles and this will continue in future missions of ISRO as well,” Annadurai said.

If all goes well, Chandrayaan-2 will become the first space mission to make a soft landing on the South Pole of the moon.

After Chandrayaan-1 (2008) and the Mars Orbiter Mission (2013), it will be India’s third mission to a celestial body and the first to land on one. It will also be the first flight of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III rocket after its induction into Isro’s operational fleet of launch vehicles.

The indigenous rover and lander on Chandrayaan 2 will be India’s first step towards robotic space exploration.

“What drives team Isro to such quantum leaps? It is the belief in ourselves, it is team excellence, it is the learning from past missions, both successes and failures. It is the sublime combination of the wisdom of elders and the innovative power of the young generation. It is the preparedness for all imaginable scenarios, it is transformational leadership at all levels,” the space agency’s former chairperson K Radhakrishnan has said.

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