India’s Mission Control lost contact with the lander for its Chandrayaan 2 mission today, just as it was about to make a touchdown near the moon’s south pole.
Chandrayaan 2’s Vikram lander descended to a highland plain between two craters, Manzinus C and Simpelius N, at a latitude of 70.9 degrees south. But contact was lost in the final moments of the descent.
During the minutes that followed, worried-looking mission managers huddled with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was at Satish Dhawan Space Center for the landing. Then Kailasavadivoo Sivan, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, took the microphone at Mission Control.
“Vikram lander’s descent was as planned, and normal performance was observed up to an altitude of 2.1 kilometers,” he said. “Subsequently, the communication from the lander to ground station was lost. The data is being analyzed.”
Modi put a brave face on the turn of events. “Hope for the best,” he told workers at Mission Control. Ground controllers applauded his comments, which were delivered mostly in Hindi.
The Chandrayaan 2 orbiter will continue observing the lunar surface with a suite of scientific instruments — and is likely to search for signs of the lander, or its remains.
Chandrayaan 2, which takes its name from the Sanskrit word for “Moon Craft,” follows up on a 2008 moon-orbiting mission known as Chandrayaan 1. The spacecraft was launched in July 22 atop a GSLV Mk III rocket — and spent several weeks gradually tweaking its orbit to switch from Earth orbit to lunar orbit.
After landing, Vikram had been due to deploy a mini-rover dubbed Pragyan, which is the Sanskrit word for “Wisdom.” The solar-powered lander and the rover would have conducted the first on-the-ground study of a wide region that NASA is targeting for a crewed landing in 2024.
The moon’s south polar region is of particular interest because it holds the promise of water ice reserves and other resources for human settlement.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whose Blue Origin space venture is also targeting the moon’s polar regions, passed along his encouragement to the Chandrayaan 2 team just before the fateful descent:
— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) September 6, 2019
The surface mission had been scheduled to last 14 days, until lunar nightfall.
If today’s touchdown had been successful, India would have joined the United States, Russia and China in the club of nations that have set landers safely on the moon. Israel’s SpaceIL tried to join the club in April, but its Beresheet lander crashed on the lunar surface due to an engine malfunction.
Today’s developments were an eerie echo of Israel’s setback.
Update for 2:25 p.m. PT Sept. 7: Modi acknowledged that the lander was lost in an address to the nation, delivered after the attempt. “We came very close, but we will need to cover more ground in the times to come,” he said.
He touted the benefit of the Indian space program in terms of promoting the nation’s technological progress and ensuring “a better life, not only for our citizens, but also for other nations.”
“India is suffering, but there will be many more opportunities to be proud and rejoice,” Modi said. “Thanks … at the same time, we are full of confidence that when it comes to our space program, the best is yet to come. There are new frontiers to discover, and new places to go.”
Chandrayaan 2’s team members received votes of support from NASA, Blue Origin and other members of the space community — and indicated that they’re not ready to give up on the lander just yet:
Space is hard. We commend @ISRO’s attempt to land their #Chandrayaan2 mission on the Moon’s South Pole. You have inspired us with your journey and look forward to future opportunities to explore our solar system together. https://t.co/pKzzo9FDLL
— NASA (@NASA) September 7, 2019
— Blue Origin (@blueorigin) September 7, 2019
The #UAESpaceAgency assure their full support to the @isro following the loss of contact with their spacecraft, Chandrayaan-2 which had to land on the moon. #India proved to be a strategic player in the #space sector & a partner in its development & achievements pic.twitter.com/f3j14gsMqS
— وكالةالإمارات للفضاء (@uaespaceagency) September 7, 2019