India just became the fourth nation to stick a lunar landing. The Chandrayaan-3 lander has safely arrived near the Moon’s south pole.
The Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft successfully performed a controlled touched down softly near the Moon’s south pole today (Aug. 23), marking a huge milestone for the nation. India is now the fourth country to stick a lunar landing, after the United States, the former Soviet Union and China. Russia’s Luna 25 lander, a stationary science package, ended up as a lunar skidmark less than a week ago, thanks to a software glitch — much in the same way that India’s previous attempt to land on the Moon did in 2019.
Close to four years and many design and software upgrades later, the homegrown Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft launched atop a LVM3 rocket on July 14 from a spaceport in Sriharikota, on India’s east coast. The spacecraft entered an elliptical orbit around the moon earlier this month, then performed multiple maneuvers to shift into a nearly circular path, which took it about 93 miles (150 kilometers) above the lunar surface.
Last Thursday (Aug. 17), the Vikram-Pragyan duo separated from the mission’s propulsion module, which will study Earth from its orbit around the moon. The lander and rover, which had entered an egg-shaped lunar orbit after separation, braked successfully on Friday (Aug. 18) and then again on Sunday (Aug. 20) to get closer to the moon’s surface.
The historic touchdown occurred at 8:33 am ET (1233 GMT or 6:03 p.m. India Standard Time), according to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). “We have achieved soft landing on the moon! India is on the moon!” ISRO chairman Sreedhara Somanath announced after the landing.
At about 8:34 a.m. EDT (1234 GMT and 18:04 India time), the lander Vikram touched down in its target landing area, at roughly 70 degrees south latitude. This location is close to where Russia had hoped its first moon mission in 47 years, Luna-25, would land on Monday (Aug. 21). The landing site was chosen because there is a lot of science that says that there are vast amounts of water ice on the moon at the poles hiding in shadows where the sun’s light never reaches. This water can be potentially used, first as water for lunar colonists, but also as a potential source of both oxygen and rocket fuel.
While still in orbit around the moon on Monday (Aug. 21) and Tuesday (Aug. 22), the duo established contact with Chandrayaan-2’s orbiter, which has been circling the moon since 2019 and will serve as the critical communication link with Earth for the Chandrayaan-3 mission.
“This success belongs to all of humanity and it will help moon missions by other countries in the future,” India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a speech following the landing. “I’m confident that all countries in the world, including those from the global south, are capable of capturing success. We can all aspire to the moon and beyond.”
Beyond its scientific instruments, the Chandrayaan-3 Vikram (“valor”) lander carried a payload consisting of Pragyan (Sanskrit for “wisdom”), a solor powered rover. The robotic duo will spend one lunar day (about 14 Earth days) exploring its new home, with the goal of collecting scientific data about the moon’s makeup before its batteries drain after sunset.
“The whole country is excited about this mission,” Anil Bhardwaj, director of the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in India, which built a few of the instruments onboard Chandrayaan-3, told Space.com prior to the landing. “We all hope that we will be successful in … bringing out new science from this mission.”
Similar to the unfortunate rover on Chandrayaan-2, Pragyan’s wheels are etched with the Ashoka Chakra, a religious symbol of a wheel with 24 spokes depicted on the Indian flag, and ISRO’s logo. So when Pragyan inches along on the moon, ISRO hopes both symbols will be stamped onto the surface, where they will remain untouched for eons.
The Chandrayaan-3 mission, which costs a modest 6 billion rupees ($73 million US at current exchange rates), is unfolding at a time when multiple nations — notably, the U.S. and China — are eyeing the moon for future crewed missions. NASA, for example, aims to land astronauts near the lunar south pole in late 2025 or 2026 on its Artemis 3 mission, and to build one or more bases in the region shortly thereafter.
“It is going to be a game changer for the new generation,” said Bhardwaj, adding that the success is important for the country’s “strategic and geopolitical purposes” as well as to drive “the youth to do something different and unique.”
When the sun sets upon the landing site in two weeks, the robotic duo will be left to fight a frigid night, which will be “very difficult to survive because the batteries will be drained out and it is too cold for electronics,” Bhardwaj said.
Meanwhile, his team has geared up for what they hope will be a busy fortnight: “Our job starts after landing.”
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