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India’s lunar mission enters the Moon’s orbit ahead of landing attempt

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Touchdown is scheduled for September 7th

The Chandrayaan-2 Vikram lander and rover before launch
Image: Indian Space Research Organization

India’s mission to the Moon, known as Chandrayaan-2, successfully entered lunar orbit on August 20th, ahead of the country’s first attempt to land a vehicle on the lunar surface. The maneuver was a critical move for the mission that could enable India to become the fourth country to put a spacecraft intact on the Moon.

The Chandrayaan-2 mission began with its launch on July 22nd on top of an Indian GSLV MK-III rocket. The payload consists of three spacecraft: a vehicle designed to orbit around the Moon, a lander called Vikram, and a rover called Pragyan. While the orbiter will stay in space, the lander is meant to carry the rover down to the lunar surface for an up-close look at the Moon.

Up until now, only the United States, Russia, and China have ever landed vehicles on the Moon, so Chandrayaan-2 could put India in a very elite group of space-faring nations. The mission is also enticing because of where Vikram is heading: the Moon’s south pole. This relatively unexplored part of the Moon is particularly tantalizing to scientists, as there is evidence that this region may harbor a significant amount of water ice. Experts have discussed in depth what could be done with this ice, such as using it to sustain a lunar base or breaking apart the water to make rocket fuel. By landing in the south pole, the Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft are tasked with getting a better idea of just how much ice is up there and if it can be mined at all.

The Vikram lander is slated to land on the Moon’s south pole on September 7th. Until then, the lander, rover, and orbiter are all bundled together in orbit around the Moon. Over the next days and weeks, the spacecraft will slowly lower their altitude over the lunar surface by firing onboard thrusters. Once the vehicles are in the right position over the Moon’s poles, the lander and orbiter will separate, with Vikram making its historic descent to the surface.

The Chandrayaan-2 landing will mark the third attempt to place a vehicle on the lunar surface this year. In January, China successfully landed a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon, and in April, an Israeli nonprofit attempted to touch down the first privately funded lander on the lunar surface. However, a glitch caused the private vehicle’s engine to cut out early, and the spacecraft slammed into the Moon instead. In a few weeks, we’ll find out which fate awaits India’s lander — either a smooth landing or a high-speed one.