This afternoon, September 6th, India will attempt a significant first for the nation: landing a vehicle intact on the surface of the Moon. If successful, India will become the fourth country to put a spacecraft on the lunar surface, joining the United States, Russia, and China.
The landing is part of India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission. Launched in late July, the mission sent multiple robotic spacecraft to the Moon: an orbiter that will study the lunar surface from above and a lander that will carry a rover to the ground to characterize the Moon’s geography. The lander and rover are headed to a particularly tantalizing place: the Moon’s south pole. The goal is to learn more about the materials that might be lurking in this relatively unexplored region of the Moon, such as potential water ice.
All three spacecraft traveled together to the Moon and inserted themselves into lunar orbit on August 20th. A couple of weeks later, the lander and orbiter separated, and the lander has been getting closer to the lunar surface ever since. Sometime between 3:30PM and 4:30PM ET this afternoon, the lander will ignite its engine and begin its powered descent to the surface. Once that firing begins, the landing should occur about 30 minutes later. The rover will make its way out of the lander about four hours later, sometime between 8PM and 9PM ET.
A successful touchdown will be a huge technological achievement for India. The country has only sent one mission to the Moon before, Chandrayaan-1. That endeavor also sent a vehicle to the lunar south pole, though that spacecraft was meant to crash into the ground rather than land intact. The impactor kicked up a bunch of materials on the Moon to analyze in the moments after impact — an event that ultimately led to the discovery of water ice in the south pole. But the vehicle was never meant to survive the crash.
Now, India is hoping to keep multiple spacecraft alive on the lunar surface after they touch down on the ground, and these vehicles will build on what the Chandrayaan-1 probe learned. By landing in the south pole, India hopes to characterize the water ice that was discovered there and figure out just how abundant this material is. If there is plenty of ice in this region, it could be mined and harnessed for a number of applications, such as the creation of rocket fuel or for sustaining a human settlement on the Moon.
First, India’s spacecraft must survive their descent, and the country’s space agency plans to live stream the touchdown. Live coverage is set for 3:40PM ET, so check back then to see if India joins an elite group of nations with intact spacecraft on the Moon’s surface.