Reflecting its growth as a global power, India has achieved some impressive progress in space lately. In the past decade, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has sent robotic spacecraft into orbit, to the Moon, and also to Mars. And today, they made their first attempt at a soft lunar landing by sending the Vikram lander towards the surface of the Moon.
This move would have made India the fourth nation in the world to land a spacecraft on the lunar surface. The landing sequence went as planned until the lander reached an altitude of 2.1 km (1.3 mi) above the surface. Unfortunately, communications with the lander was lost at that point and it is unclear whether the lander crashed. At the moment, the ISRO is analyzing data collected by the orbiter to determine what happened.
The entire event was live-streamed from the ISRO’s Indian Deep Space Network (IDSN) facility in Bengaluru, India. Roughly an hour after communication was lost with the lander, the ISRO issued the following statement via their official Twitter account:
This is Mission Control Centre. #VikramLander descent was as planned and normal performance was observed up to an altitude of 2.1 km. Subsequently, communication from Lander to the ground stations was lost. Data is being analyzed.#ISRO
— ISRO (@isro) September 6, 2019
The Vikram lander is part of the Chandrayaan-2 (“moon craft-2” in Hindi) mission, which consists of an orbiter, lander and rover element. This mission launched from Earth on July 22nd, 2019 and achieved a lunar orbit by August 20th. This was followed by a series of orbital maneuvers designed to put the spacecraft into a polar orbit about 100 km (62 mi) above the Moon’s surface.
Earlier this week (Monday, September 2nd) the Vikram lander successfully separated from the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter. Multiple maneuvers were then conducted to make sure the lander was in the right position to achieve a soft landing in a high plain region between the Manzinus C and Simpelius N caters (located around 70° latitude South).
Prior to the landing, this region was imaged (shown above) in order to find a safe and hazard-free landing zone. After touching down, the lander was to deploy the Pragyan (“Wisdom” in Hindi) rover, which would conduct a series of experiments for a period of 14 days (or one lunar day). These experiments would gather data that is vital to the Chandrayaan program.
According to the ISRO’s mission website, these experiments included “detailed topographical studies, comprehensive mineralogical analyses, and a host of other experiments on the lunar surface.” In addition, the lander and rover would also explore discoveries made by the mission’s predecessor (Chandrayaan-1) and other lunar missions.
Examples include the presence of water in the southern polar region and the existence of rocks with unique chemical compositions. The overall purpose here is to gain a better understanding of the origin and evolution of the Moon and the availability of local resources – which will come in handy when future missions attempt to explore and even build an outpost in the South Pole-Aitken Basin.
For the time being, it is unclear whether or not the lander crashed or not. And while the ISRO looks over the mission data to determine why communications were lost, there has been an outpouring of support from around the country. These include the Indian National Congress and the Prime Minister himself, Narendra Modi, who issued the following statement:
India is proud of our scientists! They’ve given their best and have always made India proud. These are moments to be courageous, and courageous we will be!
Chairman @isro gave updates on Chandrayaan-2. We remain hopeful and will continue working hard on our space programme.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) September 6, 2019
Given its importance to India’s burgeoning space program, to lunar science, and to future missions, I think it is fair to say that we would all like to know the lander made it to the surface with at most a few bumps. However, should that not be the case, the ISRO still has much to be proud and a lot to look forward to. And this latest development once again reminds us that space exploration is hard and losses are part of the process.
But then again, failure is the best mentor there is. Should the Vikram lander have not made it to the surface intact, the lessons learned here will help the ISRO to make a successful soft landing on the Moon in the near future and become the fourth member of the lunar club!
Further Reading: ISRO
Source: Universe Today, by Matt Williams.