More than national pride was on the line when India undertook its second attempt to land on the Moon.
On 23 August, India’s Chandrayaan-3 landed on the Moon — an event with the potential to unlock real economic benefits.
Chandrayaan-3 is the third lunar exploration mission by the Indian Space Research Organisation and with its success, India has become the fourth country after the United States, the former Soviet Union (now Russia) and China to achieve a soft landing on the lunar surface.
Crash landings — like what happened with Chandrayaan-2 — don’t count.
After Chandrayaan-3 lands, the plan is for it to then deploy a rover on the Moon and explore the lunar south pole.
But it’s not just national pride on the line for this spacefaring nation: the success of Chandrayaan-3 could have a very real impact on India’s economy.
The world has already seen everyday benefits from previous space efforts like accessibility to clean drinking water with water recycling on the International Space Station, near-global internet access provided by Starlink for education, advances in solar power generation and health technologies.
With an increasing demand for global data of satellite imaging, positioning and navigation, multiple reports indicate the world is already in an exponential growth phase of the space economy. A report by Deloitte highlights how since 2013, over USD$272 billion has been raised by private equity into 1,791 companies.
In their annual report, the Space Foundation noted the global space economy has already reached a value of USD$546 billion in the second quarter of 2023. This represents a 91 percent increase in value over the past decade.
For many countries, participating in the nascent space economy has the potential to have huge downstream benefits for their own economies, as well as inspiring their citizens to engage in the new space age.
India’s space economy is expected to be worth USD$13 billion by 2025.
By comparison, the Australian Civil Space Strategy 2019–2028 aims to triple the sector’s contribution to GDP to AUD$12 billion and create an additional 20,000 jobs by 2030.
A successful Moon landing also speaks to India’s technological prowess.
Although NASA did successfully put humans on the Moon during the Apollo Program more than 50 years ago, many seem to have forgotten the incremental steps and huge amounts of money it took to get there.
There were also many unknowns, including real worries that the lunar surface was so soft and dusty due to billions of years of meteorite bombardments that spacecraft would sink into the surface like quicksand — a concern that luckily proved unfounded.
But even with 21st century advanced computing and cutting-edge technology, the difficulties of spaceflight remain the same — can your system maintain stable communications and operate autonomously under a wide variety of extreme conditions?
India’s first attempt to reach the Moon with Chandrayaan-1 succeeded in almost all of its mission objectives and scientific goals, including detecting evidence of water on the lunar surface for the first time.
But the Indian Space Research Organisation lost contact with the spacecraft after only 312 days of its intended two-year mission.
Nonetheless, Chandrayaan-1 is considered by many to be a phenomenal success, having achieved awards from the National Space Society and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
However, 2.1km above the lunar surface contact with the lander was lost, and images taken by NASA later confirmed it had crashed into the surface.
Issues associated with onboard coordination of the five engines and orientation of the lander during the camera coast and final braking phase of its descent have been attributed to the spacecraft’s failure.
Issues with onboard software and autonomous landing sequences have also resulted in the failure of two other countries’ attempts to land on the Moon in the past three years.
On 11 April 2019 the Israeli Beresheet lander attempted a soft landing in the northern part of the Mare Serenitatis, but an Inertial Measurement Unit gyroscope failed during the braking procedure resulting in the loss of communications 2.1km above the surface.
If it had been successful, Beresheet would have been the first successful privately-funded mission and Israel’s first mission to the Moon.
Analysis by iSpace engineers later confirmed that the onboard computer was programmed to ignore the laser radar altimeter if it conflicted with the predicted position of the spacecraft.
Due to a last-minute change of the intended landing zone, a sudden change in altitude as the spacecraft crested the lip of a crater was interpreted as a mistake, causing the spacecraft to hover 5km above the lunar surface before it exhausted its fuel and plummeted to the surface.
Together, the failures of Chandrayaan-2, Beresheet and Hakuto-R highlight the difficulties of modern spaceflight and the importance of software redundancy, systems engineering and change management, even in an age of advanced sensing and high processing power.
Taking the lessons learned from Chandrayaan-2, Chandrayaan-3 has several improvements from its predecessor.
The intended landing zone has been increased to an area of 4.2km long and 2.5km wide, meaning the spacecraft has a higher margin of error rather than the risk of choosing a single point and drifting, as occurred with Chandrayaan-2.
Chandrayaan-3 will also have four engines with adjustable throttle and slew (orientation) as well as a Laser Doppler Velocimeter, meaning it can control its attitude and orientation in all phases of descent — unlike Chandrayaan-2.
The Vikram lander is carrying more sensitive versions of instruments already on the lunar surface including a seismometer to detect moonquakes, a Langmuir plasma probe to measure the behaviour of charged particles from the Sun at the lunar surface, and a NASA-contributed retroreflector like the one left by Apollo 11.
A thermal probe will also be inserted 10cm into the ground and provide measurements of the temperature gradient throughout the day, which can improve scientists’ knowledge of stability zones for resources like water ice at the poles of the Moon.
The Vikram lander is also carrying a six-wheeled 26kg lunar rover called Pragyan, about the size of a golden retriever.
It is carrying two payloads: an Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer and a Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscope to measure the composition of lunar rocks and soil.
Although these instruments have previously been used by NASA on several of its Mars rovers as well as by the China National Space Administration on its Yutu rovers on the Moon, Pragyan will explore new regions.
If Chandrayaan-3 is successful, it will highlight how space is becoming more accessible, and demonstrate India’s continued perseverance and tenacity in achieving difficult missions.
It also bodes well for India’s participation in the new space race to build permanent infrastructure on the Moon. In 2021, China and Russia announced they’ll be building a Moon base together and invited others to join their International Lunar Research Station, as an alternative to the American Artemis program. India became a signatory to the Artemis Accords in July 2023.
With each successful mission, humanity’s knowledge of the lunar surface and environment continues to grow, meaning the risks associated with getting to, and staying on the Moon are reduced.