New Delhi — India successfully placed a lander in the moon’s southern polar region Wednesday evening, making history as it became the first country to touch down on an uncharted part of the lunar surface.
Although the United States, Russia and China have landed around the moon’s equator, no country has so far made a soft landing on the more challenging rough terrain of the south pole.
Scientists clapped, cheered and waved in the mission command center of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) after the unmanned lander called Vikram made its final descent. It was a huge moment for India’s space agency, whose mission to reach the south pole four years ago had ended in disappointment when the lander crashed.
India reported success of its Chandrayaan-3 mission after Russia’s Luna-25, that was also headed to the south pole, crashed on Saturday.
“This is the dawn of a new India,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said after watching the landing from South Africa, where he is attending the BRICS summit. Waving the Indian flag on a live broadcast, he said “This is a moment to cherish forever.”
“India is on the moon,” ISRO’s chairman, S. Somanath said.
By placing the lander on the moon, India achieved one of the mission’s major objectives — demonstrating the capability of making a controlled and safe landing on the lunar surface, which only three countries have done so far.
Its other goals will be tested over the next two weeks when a six-wheeled, 26-kilogram robotic rover called Pragyan or wisdom, that the lander carried, is expected to map the lunar surface. ISRO scientists said it will be rolled out in the next few hours or on Thursday.
If all goes according to plans, a range of instruments on the rover will probe the rocks and craters on the moon for the presence of water, minerals and study the topography of the south pole, which scientists say has a different geology from the equatorial regions of the lunar surface.
“The successful landing gives us a lot of confidence that we will be able to carry out the experiments over the next two weeks,” Somanath told reporters.
Chandrayaan-3, which means moon vehicle in Sanskrit and Hindi, is India’s third mission to the moon. The first one in 2008 helped confirm evidence of water, the second in 2019 failed in making a landing, but placed an orbiter around the moon that continues to send data back to earth.
Experts say the Chandrayaan-3 mission marks a milestone in the country’s efforts to emerge on the frontlines of space exploration. In 2014, it became the first Asian nation to put a satellite into orbit around Mars.
“India started its journey in planetary exploration about two decades ago. Now to have a lander, rover and orbiter on the moon and on Mars is an enormous achievement for the country,” said Amitabha Ghosh, a space scientist and a former member of the NASA mars missions.
Interest in exploring the moon has gained new momentum in recent years as scientists seek to determine whether it will be possible to mine earth’s nearest neighbor for minerals and other resources that are shrinking on earth.
An important focus of the Chandrayaan-3 mission will be to find evidence of deposits of water ice. “There are higher chances that water molecules could be found on the south pole, which is frigid. It could be hidden in craters, in dark zones which ensures a high repository of water ice,” according to Chaitanya Giri, Associate Professor, Environmental Sciences at Flame University in Pune. “These could supply fuel, oxygen and drinking water for future missions or potential human settlements. “
The landing date was chosen to coordinate with sunrise at the landing site. The data and images will be transmitted to the lander and then onto earth.
Scientists say transmitting back signals from the rover to ensure high-quality, scientific results before its solar-powered batteries get discharged would be crucial in conducting investigations from the moon’s surface.
The lander’s touchdown on Wednesday evoked nationalistic fervor – millions, including schoolchildren tuned in to watch the livestreaming of the landing. “India Conquers the Moon,” “Chandrayaan-3 scripts history” flashed headlines on television channels after the landing.
Ahead of the mission, many had offered prayers for its success, others took part in religious rituals to invoke blessings for the mission.
India’s space endeavors are a source of national pride and seen as part of its ambitions to be counted among a select group of space faring countries.
The program has come a long way since 1963, when the first rocket it launched was transported by a bullock cart to the launch site. The ISRO is now developing a spacecraft to take astronauts into orbit, probably in 2025 – it is part of the country’s efforts to showcase its technological advancement as it seeks to raise its global profile.
The country, which runs its space program on a relatively modest budget, also prides itself on conducting space exploration at a modest cost — the price tag of India’s current mission is about $75 million.