India’s ambitious mission to land near the moon’s south pole through Chandrayaan-2 faced an unexpected twist when communication was lost with the lander just moments before its highly anticipated touchdown, merely 2 kilometers away from the moon’s surface. The lander, on the verge of making India the fourth nation to achieve a moon landing, following the United States, the former Soviet Union, and China, sadly went silent. Although the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) hasn’t officially acknowledged this, indications suggest the spacecraft experienced a crash landing.
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Chandrayaan-2 Mission Failure and the Power of Perseverance
Upon losing contact, at around 1:52 a.m. local time, the mood at ISRO Mission Control Center in Bangalore changed. Smiles on the faces of excited scientists and engineers turned into somber expressions. A running commentary, part of a nationwide broadcast, was abruptly halted. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was observing from just outside the control center, was briefed and left the area immediately. The scheduled press conference for the next morning was canceled.
A thank-you tank, operated with the support of the government, says Ajay Lele, a senior fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, “Failure is part of the game, and India was attempting something it had never tried before, something it had no experience with.”
ISRO scientists believe that the “terror 15 minutes” saw a glitch: the duration it took for the lander to descend from lunar orbit to the surface. During this delicate phase, the lander was working autonomously, based on internal artificial intelligence. There was no direct control from Earth-based stations. Indications point to the lander veering off its planned speed, struggling to manage its velocity using its four thrusters and a central engine. The data is being revised by ISRO, in order to determine the probable cause behind it.
Had this mission succeeded, it would have deployed a 26-kilogram rover, Pragyan, about the size of a briefcase, to roll down a ramp from the lander’s belly. The rover, powered by solar energy, was expected to traverse half a kilometer and collect data for 14 Earth days or one lunar day.
ISRO officials were well aware of the steep odds against success with the Chandrayaan-2 mission. Kailasavadivoo Sivan, ISRO’s chairperson, never tired of saying it was an extraordinarily complex mission, something India had never tried before – and to a difficult place, the moon’s south pole, where no one had gone before.
In April, an Israeli robotic lander, Beresheet, crashed on the moon when communications were lost with the surface. Yet, on January 3rd, China achieved a milestone by smoothly launching and landing their robotic Chang’e-4 lander and rover mission on the moon’s far side, which is on the exact opposite side of where Chandrayaan-2 was intended to land.
In recent years, the Chandrayaan-2 mission faced multiple hiccups and delays and was slammed more than twice. There was a major delay in 2013 when Russia, which was supposed to provide the lander and rover, pulled out of the joint mission, forcing India to prepare the technology from scratch.
On July 15, the mission was halted during the critical 1-hour period just ahead of the launch. The reason, ISRO discovered, was a snag in one of the 2,299 sensors in the pressure-carrying lines of the propulsion system. ISRO fixed the glitch and launched the mission on July 22, at precisely the right moment.
50 years back, NASA’s Apollo mission reached the moon in merely 3 days, propelled by the immense power of its rocket. Chandrayaan-2 took 48 days to get to the moon, using an indigenously developed Mark III rocket of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle GSLV Mark III. Lele says that the country’s relatively low launch capability is a problem because it limits the payload that can be sent on missions.
The Former ISRO chief stated in a conference that the lander may have failed but we may be able to salvage something. The orbiter, which was carrying the Vikram lander, has eight instruments that can make measurements for at least a year – and possibly spot the lander near its intended landing site. “I would say the mission is 90% successful,” he says.
Hours after the landing announcement, Modi returned to Mission Control to offer encouragement to ISRO scientists. He stated “We came very close, but we need to cover more ground.”
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