India’s uncrewed Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft successfully touched down on the lunar surface Wednesday morning, becoming the first-ever mission to land near the moon’s south pole.
The feat also makes India the fourth country to soft-land a spacecraft anywhere on the moon, joining the United States, the Soviet Union and China.
India’s touchdown comes just a few days after an uncrewed Russian spacecraft, also attempting to land near the moon’s south pole, crashed on the lunar surface. With India’s success, humans are closer to exploring this intriguing region of the moon, which has been found to host water that might support human astronauts, power rockets or fuel other spacecraft in the future.
“[The south pole is] really a very interesting, historical, scientific and geologic area that a lot of countries are trying to get at that can serve as a base for future exploration,” Wendy Whitman Cobb, a space exploration expert at the U.S. Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, tells CNBC’s Michael Sheetz and Charmaine Jacob.
Chandrayaan-3 launched from southern India more than a month ago, on July 14. It orbited Earth for a couple of weeks before heading to the moon and entering a lunar orbit on August 5, according to Space.com’s Andrew Jones. The craft began its descent to the surface around 8:15 a.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, per CBS News’ William Harwood.
The successful landing, coming about four years after an uncrewed Indian lander crashed on the moon, marks a step forward for the nation’s space program—and for exploration more broadly.
“This success belongs to all of humanity, and it will help more missions by other countries in the future,” Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, said on Wednesday, per the Washington Post’s Christian Davenport.
Chandrayaan-3 Mission:— ISRO (@isro) August 23, 2023
The communication link is established between the Ch-3 Lander and MOX-ISTRAC, Bengaluru.
Here are the images from the Lander Horizontal Velocity Camera taken during the descent. #Chandrayaan_3#Ch3 pic.twitter.com/ctjpxZmbom
India’s first deep space mission, its Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, successfully orbited the moon in 2008 and contributed to the discovery of lunar water molecules. That spacecraft released an impact probe that was intentionally crash-landed, stirring up moon debris that the orbiter could analyze.
The new spacecraft, Chandrayaan-3, consists of the lander and a rover that will explore the moon’s surface, according to the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). The craft contains seven scientific instruments that will study vibrations on the moon—perhaps caused by seismic activity or meteor impacts—as well as measure the mineral composition of the ground at the landing site and the plasma environment of the near-surface.
Researchers know the surface of the moon contains water ice. At the south pole, this water ice is mostly concentrated in lunar craters. Future space explorers could take advantage of the moon’s water for drinking, cooling equipment, breathing and making rocket fuel for missions to farther space destinations, according to NASA.
More visits to the moon from around the world are on the horizon. NASA’s Artemis missions aim to “establish the first long-term presence on the moon,” per the agency. Artemis 2, currently scheduled for 2024, will send astronauts to orbit our natural satellite. It will be followed by Artemis 3, planned for the following year, which will aim to land humans near the moon’s south pole. It has been more than 50 years since humans last walked on the moon.
China also intends to land people on the moon by the end of the decade, writes Ashok Sharma and Krutika Pathi of the Associated Press. Japan plans to launch an uncrewed lunar lander to the moon later this week to test landing precisely on its surface, per the Washington Post.