India is heading back to the moon after a rocket lifted off Friday afternoon local time from a launch pad on India’s east coast.
Chandrayaan-3 Chandrayaan-3, nearly four years ago after the country’s first attempt to land a robotic spacecraft on the lunar surface ended in a crash and a crater, is largely a work in progress.
Chandrayaan-3 is underway as interest in exploring the moon has increased. The United States and China aim to send astronauts there in the coming years, and half a dozen robotic missions from Russia, Japan and the United States could go there this year and next.
If the robotic lander and rover on Chandrayaan-3 succeed in landing, it will be a feat that no country other than China has pulled off this century, adding to the national pride India will take in its own space programme. A cadre of commercial aerospace start-ups is also emerging in India.
Last month, India signed a deal with the US to send a joint mission to the International Space Station next year. The Indian Space Research Organization – India’s space shuttle counterpart to NASA – is also developing its own spacecraft to carry astronauts into orbit.
On Friday, at 2:35 p.m. local time (5:05 a.m. Eastern time), the launch vehicle Mark III rocket lifted off from an Indian space station on an island north of Chennai metropolis.
The rocket soared into the sky as people cheered, carrying Indian flags and colorful umbrellas. Sixteen minutes later, the shuttle separated from the rocket’s upper stage, and a round of cheers and applause erupted in the Mission Control Center.
“This is truly a proud moment for India,” said Jitendra Singh, Minister of State in India’s Ministry of Technology and Science, in remarks after the launch, “This is a moment for all of us in Sriharikota. A piece of history in the making.”
In the coming weeks, the spacecraft will perform a series of engine firings to extend its orbit before heading toward the moon. The landing attempt is scheduled for August 23 or 24, around sunrise at the lunar south pole landing site.
Landing on the moon in one piece is difficult, and many space projects have failed.
Chandrayaan means “craft of the moon” in Hindi. Chandrayaan-1, an orbiter, was launched in 2008, and the mission lasted less than a year. The Chandrayaan-2 program was successfully launched on July 22, 2019, and the spacecraft successfully entered lunar orbit.
The landing attempt on September 6, 2019 looked good until the lander was about 1.3 miles above the surface when its trajectory deviated from its planned path.
Problems arose when one of the lander’s five engines pumped a little more than expected, Indian Space Agency chief S. Somanath said during a press conference a few days ago.
The spacecraft attempted to correct, but the software specified limits on how quickly it could turn. And due to high thrust, the craft was short of its target even as it approached the ground.
“The craft is trying to get there by increasing speed to get there, but it doesn’t have enough time,” Mr. Somanath said.
A few months later, an amateur Internet searcher used images from the NASA spacecraft to locate the crash site, where the wreckage of the Vikram lander and the Pragyan rover sit today.
The Chandrayaan-2 orbiter continues to orbit the Moon, where its instruments are used for scientific research. For that reason, the Chandrayaan-3 mission has a simple propulsion module that will push a lander and a rover out of Earth orbit, then allow it to enter orbit around the Moon.
Although the lander’s design is largely the same, changes include stronger landing legs, more propulsion, additional solar cells to collect energy from the sun, and improved sensors to measure altitude.
The software has been modified to allow the spacecraft to turn faster if necessary, and the permitted landing area has been expanded.
Once on the Moon, the lander and rover will use various instruments to take thermal, seismic and mineralogical measurements of the area.
A solar-powered lander and rover will complete the mission two weeks after the sun sets. If something happens while Chandrayaan-3 is orbiting the moon, the landing could be delayed by a month until the next sunrise, in September, when the spacecraft will be able to fully operate on the surface for two weeks.
Scientists will benefit from the lunar data collected by Chandrayaan-3, and India, like other countries, is exploring the solar system for reasons of national pride.
When the country’s Mangalyaan spacecraft entered Mars orbit in 2014, children in India were asked to arrive at school at 6:45 a.m., before the usual start time, to watch the event on state television.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was at Mission Control Center in Bangalore and hailed the Mars mission as “a shining symbol of what we can do as a nation”.
For the failed Chandrayaan-2 landing attempt, Mr. Modi was again at the space centre, but later his speech was more subdued. “We came very close, but we have a lot more ground to cover in the coming times,” he told the scientists, engineers and staff.
Later in his speech Mr. Modi added: “As important as the end result is the journey and the effort. I can proudly say that the effort paid off and the journey was worth it. Then he was found K. embraced Shiva and comforted himISRO chief at that time.
On Friday, the mood in the mission control room was upbeat after the spacecraft’s successful orbit was confirmed. Hope for Chandrayaan-3 also spread to some Indian space enthusiasts who went to witness the launch.
Neeraj Ladia, 35, chief executive of astronomy equipment maker Space Arcade, was parked among about 100 cars to watch the launch five miles from the ISRO campus in Sriharikota.
“It’s going to be a soft landing this time, for sure,” he said, referring to the moon landing in one piece. That’s why the mood is so positive at the moment, he added.
Beyond Chandrayaan-3, the Indian Space Agency has other projects in the works. It is developing the Kaganyan spacecraft to carry astronauts into orbit, but its original goal of a crewed flight by 2022 has fallen behind, and the mission is not expected before 2025.
India is increasing its cooperation with the US in space missions. Earlier this year, the White House announced that NASA would train Indian astronauts at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, “with the goal of scaling up a joint venture to the International Space Station by 2024.”
India is also a signatory to the Artemis Treaty, a US framework that sets common guidelines for civil space exploration. The agreements reinforce the United States’ view that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty allows countries to exploit resources such as minerals and ice mined from meteorites, the Moon, Mars and elsewhere in the solar system.
Another collaboration is the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar mission, or NISAR, which will use advanced radar to accurately monitor changes in Earth’s land and ice surfaces. The satellite is slated to be launched from India in 2024. India is also ambitious to explore the Sun and Venus.
Several moon missions could be right on India’s heels. Russia plans to launch Luna 25, the latest in a long line of robotic missions to the moon, in August. But the past is a long time ago: Luna took place on 24 August 1976, before the fall of the Soviet Union.
The Japanese space agency JAXA’s Smart Lander for Lunar Exploration, or SLIM, is scheduled to go to the moon in August.
All three NASA-funded missions are part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program — missions put together by private companies to take NASA instruments to the moon. Houston’s Intuitive Engines plans its first CLPS mission as early as the third quarter of this year, heading to the South Pole.
Pittsburgh’s Astrobotic Technology has its lander ready, but it’s waiting for its ride — a new rocket called Vulcan, developed by United Launch Alliance, which isn’t ready to fly yet.
A second Intuitive Machines task is also slated for the fourth quarter of this year, but that is likely to slide to next year.
Japanese company ISpace has made an attempt to land on the moon in April this year. But its navigation system went haywire and the spacecraft crashed.