India woke up to the distressing news of Chandrayaan-2’s near miss while landing its ‘Vikram’ lander on the surface of the moon on Saturday morning.
If successful, the landing of Vikram developed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) would have made scientific history by being the first to land on the southern polar region of the moon.
Here’s what we know about what went wrong and its implications for India’s ambitions in space exploration.
What went wrong?
ISRO confirmed that the ‘Vikram’ lander’s descent was going as planned up to a 2.1 kilometer altitude above the lunar surface. It was at this point that contact with Vikram lander was lost with the ground station.
These incidents happened in a braking sequence called ‘fine braking’, which followed a period of powered descent called ‘rough braking’. The phase was the last fifteen minutes of the landing sequence before Vikram would touch the lunar surface.
Vikram’s landing sequence was scheduled to start 1:40 am on September 7. It consisted of the rover ‘Pragyan’, which was supposed to go onto the lunar surface around 3 hours later.
Both ISRO and its chairman Dr. K. Sivan have made these announcements, that can be seen below.
NASA data shows Israel’s Baresheet mission too unsuccessfully attempted to land the first mission by a private company in April 2019. From 1958 to 2019, 109 moon missions were launched out of which 61 were successful and 48 were not. This indicates about 60% success rate for lunar missions launched by countries around the world.
What is next?
Both Dr. Sivan’s announcement and ISRO’s statement has said that certain data is being analysed.
While ISRO has not yet put out more details on this, former ISRO director D Sasikumar has told ANI:
We have to find out from communications data whether it is a soft landing or it is a crash landing. In my opinion, it is not a crash landing because the communication channel is on between the lander and the orbiter. It should be intact. So, let us hope after the analysis is done, we may be able to find the final figure.
This communication data will help ISRO unveil the events that occurred in the last fifteen minutes of landing.
While information is awaited on the course of action that ISRO will take on Chandrayaan 2, the mission to the moon Chandrayaan 3 is already in the works, expected to be around 2024.
ISRO’s ‘Aditya’ mission is also scheduled to study the sun with the satellite to be launched in 2019 – 2020, reportedly in collaboration with Japan. A ‘Gaganyaan’ mission is scheduled to be India’s first manned space mission, launching in 2021.
Is the mission a failure?
The Chandrayaan-2 mission had three components:
- The orbiter
- The Vikram lander
- The Pragyan rover
While communication has been lost with the lander that consisted of the rover, the orbiter has successfully been put in the lunar orbit. Vikram and the orbiter split paths on September 3.
ISRO, in a press release, has said that 90 – 95% of the mission objectives have been accomplished due to the safety of the orbiter, which will be in a 100 kilometer orbit of the moon. Also, due to the precision of the mission, the life of the mission will now be 7 years instead of the planned one year.
International scientific correspondents have also cautioned against making premature conclusions without hearing further from ISRO.
What has been the response from around the world?
The Chandrayaan 2 mission and ISRO have received praised for the mission despite the setback from leaders from around the world and from the scientific community.
NASA scientists and scientific journalists have tweeted on the mission.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi not only consoled an emotional Dr. Sivan, he also addressed ISRO scientists, encouraging them to move beyond the setback to ensure success in future.
The mission has also received commendations from global leaders.