India Locates Lost Lunar Lander but Struggles to Reestablish Contact

The Vikram spacecraft went offline minutes before it was scheduled to touch down near the south pole of the moon

The moon lander Vikram in the foreground and the orbiter Chandrayaan- in the background during preparation of the spacecraft for launch, June 10, 2019. allava Bagla / Corbis via Getty Images

A thermal image captured by India's Chandrayaan-2 lunar orbiter has revealed the location of a lunar lander that went offline minutes before its expected touchdown, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) chairman K. Sivan said Sunday.

As the agency director explained to Asian News International, the orbiter's cameras spotted Vikram—a robotic lander that lost contact with ISRO’s Bengaluru ground station as it was descending to the moon around 2 a.m. Saturday local time—on a yet-to-be identified section of the moon’s surface. Although attempts to establish contact with the lander and assess damage are currently under way, an anonymous senior official with the mission tells Press Trust of India (PTI) the likelihood of reestablishing a connection will become “less and less probable” as time passes. According to Sivan, the ISRO will continue to make communication attempts for 14 days.

If Vikram had made a soft landing as planned, India would have become the fourth country to land a spacecraft on the moon’s surface and the third to launch a robotic lunar rover. (Previously, the United States, the former Soviet Union and China have all successfully landed spacecraft on the lunar surface.) The mission would have been the first lunar landing in the south pole region of the moon.

According to an ISRO official, the fact that the Vikram module made a hard landing will complicate recovery efforts. “Impact shock may have caused damage to the lander,” the official tells PTI, adding that the spacecraft may not have landed upright and on its four legs. The Washington Post’s Niha Masih reports that just half of all 38 lunar landing attempts were successful. Most recently, an Israeli spacecraft launched in April crashed into the moon’s Sea of Serenity. As Patrick Das Gupta, a physicist and astrophysicist at Delhi University, tells Masih, “Proper landing is the most crucial part of the exercise. From an altitude of 21 miles to zero height is the most scary time.”

Per the Associated Press, the $140 million Chandrayaan-2 mission—composed of the functioning orbiter, the Vikram lander and a rover dubbed Pragyan—lifted off July 22 and reached lunar orbit August 20. The 3,200-pound lander, named in honor of Vikram A. Sarabhai, founder of India’s space program, separated from the orbiter September 2 and began its descent toward the moon.

Vikram, traveling at more than 2,000 miles per hour just 15 minutes before its scheduled landing, operated as expected until it reached an altitude of 1.3 miles. Then, the New York Times reports, the lander stopped transmitting data, leaving scientists and space enthusiasts following the mission in real-time unsure of whether the craft had crashed or simply lost communication. Based on the available data from the spacecraft, the Times posits that Vikram was “descending too fast” at the end of its journey.

According to PTI, Vikram was designed to operate on the moon for one lunar day, or roughly 14 Earth days. Pragyan, a six-wheeled robotic rover transported by the lander, would have set out in search of water following a successful soft landing. (A previous Chandrayaan mission conducted in 2008 focused on permanently shadowed moon craters believed to contain water deposits.)

The primary spacecraft of the Chandrayaan-2 mission, the lunar orbiter, remains “healthy, intact, functioning normally and safely in the lunar orbit," an ISRO official tells PTI. The orbiter is equipped with eight instruments, including the highest-resolution camera used in a lunar mission to date and a solar X-ray monitor. Although the orbiter's primary mission is only one year, Sivan says efficient fuel use could enable the module to last for up to 7.5 years.

Given the scientific potential still represented by the orbiter, ISRO declared the mission’s objectives 90 to 95 percent accomplished.

“We came very close, but we need to cover more ground,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in an address to the nation Saturday. “Our determination to touch the moon has become even stronger.”

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