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India successfully lands on the Moon’s hostile south pole

After the failure of the Russian mission, the ‘Vikram’ has become the first spacecraft to land on the lunar southern region, where there are large reserves of frozen water

Image of the Moon taken by the Indian mission.

The Chandrayaan-3 mission launched by India in July has landed in the south pole of the Moon. The chosen landing site was approximately 93 miles north of the Boguslawsky crater, where Russia intended to land its Luna-25 spacecraft to win this new space race. On Sunday, Moscow lost communication before its probe crashed into the satellite; further proof of how difficult it is to land on the Moon, a feat so far only achieved by the United States, Soviet Russia and China. No one has yet done it near the south pole, where there may be substantial reserves of frozen water to support future manned space missions.

“We have no reason to be concerned, but we do have reasons to feel anxious,” admitted Anil Bhardwaj, director of India’s Physical Research Laboratory, who has been working on the country’s space program for almost 30 years, ahead of the landing.

The Moon landing was broadcast live, and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) encouraged schools across the country to follow the event with all their students. This mission is “a new chapter in India’s space odyssey” and it elevates “the dreams and ambitions of every Indian,” said the country’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, in statements collected by Reuters. Modi added that the successful landing was “not just India’s alone,” but belonged to all of humanity.

“We have achieved soft landing on the moon. India is on the moon,” Sreedhara Panicker Somanath, chairman of the ISRO, said after the Chandrayaan-3 touched down on the lunar surface.

India is a rising space power and its probes have already made history. In 2009, the Chandrayaan-1 discovered frozen water at the poles of the Moon. Then, in 2019, the country sent the Chandrayaan-2, an orbital probe and lander that would have become the first human spacecraft to land at the south pole. Although a programming glitch caused it to crash, the orbiter has remained in good use to this day: its images have enabled Indian engineers to see the surface of the pole with a huge resolution of 0.30 meters/pixel, which in turn has allowed them to improve the technology of the Chandrayaan-3 and select a new landing point, one where there are no dangerous craters or stone blocks. “This time we are much more confident that the area is safe,” says Bhardwaj.

Landing on the Moon is a very complicated task as there is no atmosphere to slow down a spacecraft. Probes do not have great maneuverability beyond their automatic systems, and the south pole of the Moon is one of the most rugged, crater-riddled areas. If something goes wrong, the chances of failure are enormous.

“India’s pursuit of space exploration reaches a remarkable milestone with the impending Chandrayaan-3 Mission, poised to achieve a soft landing on the lunar surface. This achievement marks a significant step forward for Indian Science, Engineering, Technology, and Industry, symbolizing our nation’s progress in space exploration,” the ISRO said in a statement earlier Wednesday.

The Chandrayaan will try to succeed where Russia (which had just sent its first lunar mission in 47 years), Japan (which recently lost the private Hakuto-R probe) and Israel (which wanted to arrive before India, in April 2019) have failed. In a few days, this space race will continue with a new attempt from Japan, in this case by its space agency, to land in the equatorial zones with the SLIM mission.

Moonrise

The Chandrayaan-3 will touch the ground just as it dawns on the Moon, where the days last 14 Earth days, and so do the nights. At sunset, temperatures can drop to 328 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, perhaps too much for the probes to survive without a heating system (the one on the ill-fated Luna-25 was powered by radioactive uranium). The Chandrayaan’s official lifespan is 14 days of sunshine, although Bhardwaj does not rule out it re-awakening after the first night. “We can only wait and see,” he admits.

The Chandrayaan-3 is carrying the Vikram lander, a nearly two-ton device named after Vikram Sarabhai, the creator of the Indian space program in 1947, the year India gained independence from the United Kingdom.

The spacecraft will start operating some 10 minutes after landing, when all the dust has settled. After checking that everything works, about four hours later, a ramp will be deployed and the Pragyan (“wisdom” in Sanskrit), a six-wheeled vehicle weighing approximately 66 pounds, will descend and go a few hundred feet around the landing point.

Craters on the Moon captured by the 'Chandrayaan-3' on August 19.
Craters on the Moon captured by the 'Chandrayaan-3' on August 19.ISRO

The rover is carrying two scientific instruments on board to analyze the chemical composition of the soil. One of them can shoot a powerful beam of laser light into the ground to break down the compounds and detect up to 16 different elements, including the oxygen and hydrogen that make up water.

The lander is carrying four other instruments. One of them is a probe that will measure the temperature of the subsoil up to a depth of four inches. Its data is key to finding out if there could be frozen water there and how outside temperature changes affect it.

The Vikram is also carrying a laser reflector made by NASA. It is a newer version of the ones carried by the Apollo spacecraft, which carried the first astronauts to the Moon in the late 1960s. This instrument allows a laser beam to be emitted from Earth, hit it and bounce back, measuring the distance to that part of the satellite with great precision.

If the Chandrayaan-3 mission is successful, it will be a global milestone. “They will be the first in-situ measurements from the south pole of the Moon; all the information will be completely new” and very useful for future missions, both from India and other countries, emphasizes Bhardwaj.

India is already preparing one more twist. Their space agency is developing the LUCAX mission in collaboration with JAXA, the Japanese space agency. This new unmanned spacecraft will carry a lander developed by India and a mobile vehicle created by Japan, and its destination is even more hostile than the current one: the areas of perpetual shadow near the south pole, where the sunlight never reaches and a large amount of ice is more likely to be found. That same area, which is full of craters that look like black holes, is the declared landing target of the United States, which plans to send the first woman and the first Black man in December 2025.

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