An ancient world leader in astronomy tried yesterday to land a robotic spacecraft near the moon’s south pole, but lost contact with the lander 2.1 km (1.3 miles) above the lunar surface. So far only the US, the former Soviet Union, and China can claim a successful moon landing. (China achieved a scientific first earlier this year when they landed a rover on the mysterious “far side” of the moon, which never faces the earth.)
On July 22 a 142-foot tall spacecraft named Chandrayaan-2 (Sanskrit for “moon craft”) blasted off from Satish Dhawan Space Centre carrying an orbiter, a lunar lander, and a six-wheeled rover. It arrived in lunar orbit on August 20, and on September 2 the orbiter released the lander to begin its descent to the moon’s surface.
The plan was for the lander and rover to spend half of a lunar day (a day on the moon is about 28 earth days) exploring the lunar surface and sending back data on seismic activity and atmosphere. The limit on exploration time is because the instruments weren’t built to withstand the cold of the lunar night at the moon’s south pole, where temperatures reach -173 C (-279 F).
India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, was onsite at ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) about thirty minutes before the anticipated touchdown. The Vikram lander (named after Vikram A. Sarabhai, considered the father of the Indian space program) was approaching its landing site at more than 2,000 miles per hour and it had about 15 minutes to get to almost zero mph. The slowdown is achieved by firing its engines to provide counterthrust, but the process is complicated because it also starts to fall as it slows down, and more engine burns are needed to keep it from plummeting too fast.
Prime Minister Modi tweeted encouragement and general reactions of observers were hopeful and positive. The orbiter will continue to collect data and India’s scientists will use the data from the failed landing to plan follow-on work.