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India lost contact with its first lunar lander just before touchdown

The Vikram spacecraft was aiming for a spot close to the moon’s south pole

If all had gone as planned, India’s Pragyan rover would have rolled out of the Vikram lander to spend 14 Earth days exploring the moon, as seen in this artist’s illustration.


India’s Vikram lander does not appear to have survived “15 minutes of terror” in its attempt to land on the moon. At 4:50 p.m. EDT on September 6, the Indian space agency (ISRO) announced that they had lost contact with the spacecraft. The lander was supposed to touch down at about 4:24 p.m. EDT in a spot closer to the moon’s south pole than any other craft has reached.

The final powered descent, from 30 kilometers above the lunar surface to what should have been a soft landing in an unnamed spot between two craters, was supposed to take about 15 minutes. “We are doing it for the first time, so that is why we call it 15 minutes of terror,” ISRO chairperson Kailasavadivoo Sivan had said in a television interview before the landing attempt. After the spacecraft had gone through several braking stages during its descent, the ISRO control room went quiet as the expected moment of landing came and went. A tense half hour later, Sivan announced that the spacecraft was not communicating with Earth.

“The Vikram lander descent was as planned and normal performance was observed up to an altitude of 2.1 kilometers,” Sivan said. “Subsequently the communications from the lander to ground station was lost. The data is being analyzed.” Vikram was aiming for a landing site near the south pole, at about 70° S latitude, to take unique data on a relatively unknown part of the moon. Once there, the lander and a rover named Pragyan, the Sanskrit word for wisdom, would have had a full moon day — 14 Earth days — to explore before shutting down in the frigid night. The south pole is particularly intriguing because this mission’s predecessor, Chandrayaan 1, and other craft have spotted signs of water ice in permanently shadowed craters (SN: 11/13/09) and water molecules in the soil there (SN: 9/23/09). If that water is abundant and accessible enough, it could help sustain future human missions to the moon.

To date, just three nations have successfully landed a spacecraft on the moon: the former USSR, the United States and China (SN: 11/11/18). The most recent effort from another country, Israel, failed when its Beresheet lander crashed in April (SN: 4/11/19). The Chandrayaan 2 mission, which launched July 22 carrying the lander and the rover, also includes an orbiter (SN: 7/22/19). The orbiter is still operating and will continue for about a year.

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