On Wednesday afternoon, India was poised to make history by becoming the first nation to land on the moon’s south polar region. The Chandrayaan-3, which means ‘moon vehicle’ in Sanskrit and Hindi, was expected to set down its Vikram lander on the surface of the moon at 18:04 India time (12:34 GMT).
This comes just days after Russia’s Luna-25 spacecraft crashed into the moon after it lost control.
Although India’s previous attempt to land on the moon had failed in 2019, former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chief K Sivan is optimistic about the success of the latest mission based on images sent by the lander. Sivan said, “It is giving some encouragement that we will be able to achieve the landing mission without any problem.”
Launched nearly six weeks ago, anticipation and excitement for the mission’s successful completion was high across the country. Prayers were held in temples, churches and mosques. Schoolchildren waved the Indian flag even as they waited for live screenings of the landing to begin.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is in South Africa to attend the BRICS summit, was expected to watch it live from there. It was being hoped that success of the mission would lead to investment in private space launches and related satellite-based businesses.
The south pole of the moon has potential as a source of fuel, oxygen and water for future missions and possibly a colony on the moon. Chandrayaan-3 is expected to explore the lunar surface for two weeks; it will conduct a series of experiments to determine the mineral composition of the lunar surface.
Several countries, including China, Israel, Japan and the United States are aiming at setting up a base on the moon. In the past, only China, the United States and the former Soviet Union have succeeded in achieving a controlled landing on the moon.
Chandrayaan-3 is the third and most recent Indian lunar exploration mission under the Chandrayaan programme of ISRO. It consists of a lander named Vikram and a rover named Pragyan similar to those of the Chandrayaan-2. Its propulsion module acts like an orbiter. The propulsion module carried the lander and rover configuration until the spacecraft attained a 153 × 163 km lunar orbit.
Following Chandrayaan-2, where a last-minute glitch in the landing guidance software led to the lander crashing after entering lunar orbit, another lunar mission was proposed.
The launch of Chandrayaan-3 took place on 14 July 2023, at 2:35 pm IST. The lander and rover are expected to land near the lunar south pole region on 23 August 2023. If the mission succeeds, it will be the first soft landing near the lunar south pole.
As part of the Chandrayaan programme to demonstrate soft landing on the Moon, ISRO launched Chandrayaan-2 on board a Launch Vehicle Mark-3 (LVM3) launch vehicle consisting of an orbiter, a lander and a rover. The lander was scheduled to touch down on the lunar surface in September 2019 to deploy the Pragyan rover.
The European Space Tracking (ESTRACK) operated by European Space Agency (ESA) will support the mission, according to a contract. Under the new cross-support arrangement, ESA tracking support could be provided for upcoming ISRO missions such as those of India’s first human spaceflight programme, Gaganyaan and the Aditya-L1 solar research mission. In return, future ESA missions will receive similar support from ISRO’s own tracking stations.