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India successfully launches its first lunar lander bound for the Moon

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India could become the fourth nation to touch down on the lunar surface

India’s Vikram lander, with it the Pragyan rover, before launch
India’s Vikram lander, with it the Pragyan rover, before launch

Early this morning, India launched its very first lunar lander bound for the surface of the Moon. The spacecraft will spend the next month and a half traveling through space before attempting a touch down on the lunar surface in September. If successful, India will become the fourth nation to ever land a vehicle intact on the Moon.

The lander is just one of a handful of vehicles headed to the Moon as part of India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission. It’s a follow up to Chandrayaan-1, India’s very first robotic mission to the Moon. That initiative, launched in 2008, successfully put a spacecraft in orbit around the Moon, as well as sent a probe crashing into the lunar surface. Those vehicles made some significant discoveries, most notably confirming the existence of water ice on the Moon’s south pole.

Now, India hopes to top Chandrayaan-1 by landing a spacecraft on the Moon in one piece, and then keep it alive on the lunar surface for up to 14 days — the length of a full lunar day. The goal is to get an up close look of the south pole of the Moon and figure out just how much water ice might be lurking there. Thanks to Chandrayaan-1, scientists know that this water exists, but the amount and distribution of the ice is still an open question. And figuring this out could be crucial to future lunar exploration, as the ice could be mined and turned into drinking water or even fuel for spacecraft. But that’s only if there’s enough to mine. By landing in the south pole region, India hopes to characterize this precious resource fully, as well as get a more detailed understanding of the Moon’s surface and composition.

“It is the beginning of a historical journey of India towards the Moon and to land at a place near the south pole,” Kailasavadivoo Sivan, the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), said during a speech after today’s launch, “To carry out scientific experiments; to explore the unexplored.”

The Indian GSLV MK-III that took the Chandrayaan-2 vehicles into space
Image: ISRO

Chandrayaan-2 consists of an orbiter, as well as a lander named Vikram and a rover named Pragyan, which all launched on top of an Indian GSLV MK-III rocket at 5:13AM ET on Monday, July 22nd. The launch actually put the vehicles into a higher orbit around Earth than originally planned — but India says that’s a good thing. ISRO, which is overseeing this mission, says the spacecraft will now need less propellant to reach the Moon and will last longer in space.

Together, the Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft will orbit the Earth for the next few weeks and then travel to the Moon, before inserting themselves into lunar orbit in about a month. From there, the orbiter will stay in space around the Moon, while the lander carrying the rover will separate and perform a soft landing on the south pole around September 7th. If it works, India will accomplish what only the US, China, and Russia have done before, and it will be the first nation to perform a soft landing at the Moon’s south pole.

For two weeks after landing, the lander and rover will study the area near the landing site using a suite of onboard instruments. Together they’ll try to figure out more about the composition of the surface, take the temperature of the area, and feel for any Moon quakes. The Pragyan rover can travel up to 1,640 feet (500 meters) away from its landing spot to get a more comprehensive look at the region.

The Vikram lander (L) hoisted in the air, next to the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter (R)
Image: ISRO

Once lunar night sets in, though, the mission for these two surface bots will come to an end. Both rely on solar energy for power, and the Sun disappears from the sky for a full two weeks during lunar night. Additionally, temperatures can drop well below -200 degrees Fahrenheit (-130 degrees Celsius) during the night, and it gets even colder than that at the poles. At such frigid temperatures, it’s difficult for electronics to survive. That doesn’t mean the Chandrayaan-2 mission will be over, though. The orbiter is set to remain in orbit around the Moon and function for up to a year. From there it’ll continue to study and map the Moon using its own instruments.

What Chandrayaan-2 learns could be beneficial to more than just India, as many countries and companies are looking to explore the Moon in the years ahead. NASA is very focused on sending humans back to the lunar surface — specifically to the south pole — while numerous US companies want to send robotic vehicles to the Moon to potentially mine for resources. Chandrayaan-2 could help inform these future missions and give explorers a more detailed understanding of what to expect from the south pole.

It’s taken a while for the Chandrayaan-2 mission to get off the ground, though. India consistently delayed the launch from the beginning of the year to this summer. And originally, the Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft were supposed to launch on July 14th, but India delayed the flight after engineers encountered a “technical snag” just an hour before launch. Now that the vehicles are finally in space, they still have a ways to go before they get to the Moon. But once they do, the little robots could put India in an elite club of space-faring nations that have vehicles sitting on the lunar surface.