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Amateur Astronomer Locates India’s Moon Lander Crash Site

After blipping out of contact in September, India’s Vikram lander has now been found strewn across the lunar surface

An amateur astronomer in India doggedly searched for the remnants of the country's Vikram lander after it crashed into the lunar south pole. (NASA)
smithsonian.com

The solar system is littered with the wreckage of past lander missions gone wrong.

Unless they plunged into the noxious atmosphere of a gaseous planet, researchers generally know where to go looking for lost spacecraft—it’s just a matter of time before they’re found. Such is the story of India’s Vikram lander, which crashed onto the moon’s surface in September. NASA announced earlier this week that they’ve located its remnants.

The find was made possible by amateur astronomer Shanmuga Subramanian, a software engineer in Chennai, India who spotted Vikram’s remains while scouring satellite images in his spare time in the weeks after the craft supposedly crashed, reports Kenneth Chang at the New York Times.

A successful touchdown by Vikram, part of India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission, would have made India the fourth country (after the United States, Russia and China) to land a lunar spacecraft intact, and the first to do so on the moon’s south pole. But during the last stretch of descent on September 7, just a mile above the lunar surface, the probe blipped out of radio contact.

The day after the botched landing, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) said it had located Vikram, but never published images taken by the main Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft, which is still in the midst of a longer-term mission and remains in orbit around the moon.

That’s when Subramanian began his own feverish search, spending six to seven hours a day poring over photos of the lunar surface. “The crash landing of Vikram rekindled an interest in the moon not only for me and others also,” he wrote in an email to Chang. “I think even if Vikram had landed and sent some images, we would have never had such interest. For the first few days I was scanning the images randomly and there were lot of false positives.”

Then, in early October, Subramanian told NASA he’d spotted a white speck that looked like spacecraft debris less than a mile from Vikram’s intended landing site. The key image had been taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter on September 17, just days after Vikram went quiet, reports J Sam Daniel Stalin for NDTV.

After confirming Subramanian’s finding by comparing images from before and after the crash, NASA scientists broadened the search. They eventually pinpointed Vikram’s impact point about 2,500 feet to the southeast of the planned touchdown site, wreathed in a ring of debris, Chang reports.

NASA released the images Monday, crediting Subramanian for providing a “positive identification of debris.”

Vikram’s untimely end was an emotional loss for ISRO and its officials. Just hours after engineers lost contact with the lander, ISRO chairperson Kailasavadivoo Sivan broke down in tears. Subramanian, too, is sad the spacecraft didn’t touch down safely, he tells NDTV. But he also expresses joy and pride over his unexpected find, and hopes it will “inspire a lot of...amateurs like me. There’s a lot of things we could do in space.”

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University. Previously, she served as a Digital Editor at NOVA Next and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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