India was set to be the fourth country to land on the moon. However, India’s biggest space mission yet, Chandrayaan-2, was delayed at the last 56 minutes before launch on July 15, 2019. There was a suspected technical snag that was discovered while filling the rocket with cryogenic fuel and the launch was postponed, despite pressing conditions to go ahead.
The launch had been scheduled for 02:51 local time on Monday, July 15 from Sriharikota space station on the eastern coast of India. Chandrayaan-2 cost approximately $142 million and was expected to be the first to land on the south pole of the moon. The satellite would focus on searching for water and minerals on the moon’s surface, as well as measuring moonquakes. If the launch had proceeded according to plan, the orbiter, lander and rover should have touched down on the moon a few months after, in early September, and India would have joined the United States, China and the former Soviet Union as the only four countries to have a presence on the moon.
Chandrayaan-2’s predecessor, Chandrayaan-1, was India’s first moon mission and was launched in 2008. The probe crash-landed on the surface of the moon, but it did manage to carry out the first and most detailed search to date of water molecules on the moon. Chandrayaan-2 aimed to use an orbiter to study the moon from above, as well as dropping down a lander and rover at the south pole of the moon, which had never been accomplished before.
The orbiter weighs 2,379 kg (5,244 lb), with the mission life of a year. Its role is to take images of the moon from above and scout out the atmosphere. The lander is named Vikram, after the founder of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), and is half as heavy as the orbiter. It contains a 27 kg (60 lb) moon rover equipped with the tools to analyze the soil of the moon. The rover is named Pragyan, meaning “wisdom” in Sanskrit, and has a 14-day life in which it will travel up to 500 meters (1640 ft) from the lander and transmit images and data back to Earth.
India used its most powerful rocket, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III (GSLV Mk-III) in the mission Chandrayaan-2. The rocket weighs 640 tonnes (705 tons) and stands at 44 meters (144 ft).
Why Land on the Moon?
Just three other countries have achieved the feat of landing on the moon. India was pressed to keep to its launch schedule for Chandrayaan-2 if it wanted to clinch the fourth position, as at that time, other countries such as Israeli were also delving into launching space probes.
This mission also held great importance in India’s political and technological rankings. Landing on the moon would be a win for India’s ambitious space agency and a great technological achievement for the Indian Space Research Organization, serving to take India’s space ambitions one step further. Additionally, a successful moon landing was like a stepping stone to landing on Mars and asteroids. It would also open up the possibility of sending Indian astronauts to explore the lunar surface. With the successful launch of Chandrayaan-2 after the delay, India hopes to launch its first crewed space flight by the year 2022.
India has had a string of successes with regard to space travel. In 2014, the Indian space agency successfully launched a satellite into orbit around Mars, again becoming the fourth nation to do so.
In 2017, India successfully launched 104 satellites on a single mission, setting the newest world record up from Russia’s previous high of 37 satellites in 2014.
The future was looking bright for the Indian Space Research Organization and Chandrayaan-2, so the delay was a setback to the nation, in front of all the top scientists and VIPs that had gathered to witness the launch. At the time, nobody knew how long the mission would be delayed for and were uncertain as to whether they could still be the fourth nation to land on the moon.
A Journey to the Moon
The mission does not just end with a successful launch. The distance from the Earth to the moon is 384,000 km (239,000 mi) and takes a robotic craft approximately 54 days to traverse. In planning the route for Chandrayaan-2, the Indian Space Research Organization chose a circuitous route for the craft, taking advantage of the gravitational field around the Earth to slingshot the satellite towards the moon. This decision was made because the rocket that was used, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III, is not powerful enough to send Chandrayaan-2 on a direct path to the moon. The Chandrayaan-2 craft would orbit the Earth in phases, getting farther and farther until it enters lunar orbit, at which point the lander will separate from the orbiter and aim to touch down on the south pole of the moon.
The path of the lander can be a terrifying 15 minutes for those controlling the spacecraft, as it will be impossible to control the lander while it separates from the orbiter and reaches the surface of the moon. This process is an autonomous operation that depends on all systems performing as expected. If there is any fault in the process, the lander could crash onto the moon’s surface. This fate was suffered by Israel’s first moon mission, which crash landed while it was attempting to touch down on the surface.
Actual Launch of Chandrayaan-2
The mission was successfully launched without any problems on July 22, 2019. The spacecraft entered the moon’s orbit on August 20 that year and began to position itself to facilitate the landing of Vikram, the lander. Vikram and the rover were to land in the south polar region of the moon at about 70 degrees south.
However, Vikram deviated from the intended trajectory when it was at an altitude of 2.1 km (1.3 mi). It lost communication shortly after and failed to send a touchdown confirmation. The Indian Space Research Organization chairman, K. Sivan, confirmed that a crash had occurred due to a software glitch, and stated that “it must have been a hard landing”.
India hopes to attempt another soft landing by the second quarter of 2021, proposed as Chandrayaan-3. It is expected to include a detachable propulsion module, a lander and a rover.