India will become only the fourth country to successfully land an intact craft on the moon if its Chandrayaan-3 mission successfully touches down near the lunar south pole today. It will also become the first nation to explore the potentially water-rich polar region.
The Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO’s) Chandrayaan-3, which takes its name from the Sanskrit word for “mooncraft”, took off onboard a Launch Vehicle Mark-III rocket from the southern state of Andhra Pradesh on 14 July and has spent six weeks covering about 380,000 kilometres en route to the moon.
It is now in lunar orbit preparing to land at a spot with water reserves, which could help make a permanent lunar base possible.
The preceding Chandrayaan-2 mission ended in failure in 2019 when a software glitch caused the lander to crash into the moon’s surface. The Vikram lander carried on that mission was meant to deploy a six-wheeled rover named Pragyan that would have explored the moon’s south pole but both were destroyed on impact.
The earlier Chandrayaan-1 mission consisted of a lunar orbiter and a probe designed to deliberately hit the moon at speed, again targeting the south pole. But India’s latest mission is designed to land softly and carry out scientific research.
Chandrayaan-3 will be a repeat of the Chandrayaan-2 mission, but this time there will be no orbiter, with the Vikram lander and contained rover instead handling their own communications with Earth without the need for an intermediary satellite. The landing is expected at about 6pm Indian time (12:30 GMT or 13:30 BST), according to officials. Once released, the rover is expected to last just two weeks in the harsh lunar environment.
To date, only the US, the USSR and China have successfully landed lunar missions intact. A private attempt by a Japanese start-up in April ended unsuccessfully when it, too, crashed into the surface at speed. Russia’s latest attempt at lunar exploration – its first moon in nearly half a century – also ended in disaster earlier this week. The Luna 25 lander was also due to touch down gently but instead slammed into the surface at speed after what was intended to be a short engine firing to reposition it seemingly continued for too long, causing it to crash into the surface and “cease to exist”.
The ISRO said in a tweet that mission control is “buzzed with energy and excitement” ahead of the landing, and that the mission was on schedule and progressing as planned.
“The moon’s south pole is thought to be rich in water ice, which could be used to produce fuel for spacecraft, as well as other resources such as metals and minerals,” says Shri Charan Padala at analytics and consulting firm GlobalData. “Chandrayaan-3, if successful in landing at the south pole, gives India a head start in developing the infrastructure and technology needed to mine these resources.”