India’s Second Lunar Lander on Its Way

India’s Second Lunar Lander on Its Way

The Indian Space Research Organisation’s second lunar lander, Chandrayaan-3, is on its way to the Moon. ISRO is hoping for a better outcome than four years ago when they lost contact with the Chandrayaan-2 lander just before it reached the surface.

Launched from the Satish Shawan Space Center at Sriharikota, India at 2:35 pm local time (5:05 am Eastern Daylight Time), Chandrayaan-3 is now in Earth orbit where it will gradually increase its apogee — furthest distance from Earth — with a series of engine burns over several days. Then it will fire the engine to send the spacecraft towards the Moon and enter lunar orbit and similarly lower itself into an orbit 100 x 100 kilometers. The entire trip takes 42 days.

Trajectory for Chandrayaan-3’s trip to the Moon. Credit: ISRO.

Once in lunar orbit, the lander/rover will separate from the propulsion module and land at the Moon’s South Pole. Several Indian news outlets report landing is scheduled for August 23 or 24, but ISRO officials at the launch this morning said only it would be in the fourth week of August.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his congratulations.

The 1,724 kilogram lander and 26 kilogram rover (1750 kg in total) are designed to survive one lunar day (14 Earth days) while sunlight is available and will conduct a variety of experiments.

Source: ISRO.
Source: ISRO

India’s first lunar mission, Chandrayaan-1, launched in 2008, was an orbiter that carried a suite of Indian and international instruments including NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper that confirmed the existence of water molecules at the Moon’s poles. Chandrayaan-1 also sent an impactor to the lunar surface. Communications with the orbiter were lost in August 2009, 10 months into the 2-year mission.

Chandrayaan-2 in 2019 was an orbiter and lander/rover. The orbiter continues to operate today, but contact with the lander/rover was lost just before it reached the surface.

Chandrayaan-3 is only a lander/rover. Like their predecessors on Chandrayaan-2, the lander is named Vikram after the founder of India’s space program Vikram Sarabhai, and the rover is Pragyan (wisdom).

To date, the Soviet Union, the United States and China are the only countries to successfully soft land on the Moon. The advent of small, comparatively less expensive spacecraft in recent years has opened the door to others, including both government and non-government entities.

The success rate is poor, however. Zero to be exact. The Israeli non-profit SpaceIL’s Beresheet failed in 2019 a few months before Chandrayaan-2. In late 2022, Japan’s tiny OMONTENASHI lander, one of the 10 cubesats launched by NASA’s Space Launch System rocket as part of the Artemis I mission, failed. Earlier this year, a Japanese commercial company, ispace, lost contact with its lander, Hakuto-R M1,  just before touchdown due to a software error. Hakuto-1 was delivering the United Arab Emirates’ 10-kilogram Rashid rover and a baseball-like “transformer” rover developed by Japan’s space agency, JAXA, and the toy company Takara Tomy.

Hopefully the tide will turn with Chandrayaan-3 and as many as five other lunar landers that may launch this year.

  • Russia’s Luna-25, or Luna-Glob, its first lunar mission since Luna-24 in 1976.  Roscosmos has not officially announced the launch date, but it is expected on August 11.
  • Japan’s Smart Lander for Investigating the Moon, or SLIM, is scheduled for August 26. Unlike ispace’s commercial Hakuto-R program, SLIM is sponsored by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). It will launch together with JAXA’s XRISM x-ray telescope. The launch window is open through September 15.
  • Three U.S. commercial landers as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS program):
    • Astrobotic’s Peregrine will be on the first launch of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket. Originally expected on May 4, problems with the rocket postponed the launch until the 4th quarter of 2023.
    • Intuitive Machines has two listed on NASA’s schedule as launching this year, though the launch date for the first has slipped several times.
      • the first will deliver payloads for NASA and others to the Malapert A crater
      • the second will deliver NASA’s PRIME-1 drill

All the landers are headed to the Moon’s South Pole to further investigate the presence of water there. Advocates of establishing human outposts on the Moon are eager to find out how much there is and how difficult it would be to extract the water from the regolith. An abundant supply of water not only could support human presence, but, split into hydrogen and oxygen, could be used as rocket propellant. Data from the Moon Mineralogy Mapper, NASA’s LCROSS and other spacecraft is intriguing, but many questions remain.

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