India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission has started its descent on the Moon’s surface but during the final stages of the landing, they lost contact with the spacecraft resulting in undetermined results about the state of the lunar lander and the remainder of the mission.
Chandrayaan-2 entered the Moon’s orbit on August 20 and was due to make a controlled powered descent to the lunar surface early on Saturday, September 7 Indian time, over a month or 46 days after it first took off.
The spacecraft then first entered the moon’s orbit on July 22, which followed a series of orbit-changing maneuvers in order to edge it closer to the lunar surface in preparation for it to detach the lunar lander, called Vikram.
Vikram, separated from the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter on Monday and began imaging the primary site, between craters Manzinus C and Simpelius N, and a secondary target in preparation for landing.
According to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the space agency in charge of the Chandrayaan-2 mission, the spacecraft approached the Moon 4 p.m. EST Friday, targeting a high plain 70.9 degrees south of the equator, some 550 kilometers from the south pole.
In a live stream from the ISRO, it showed Vikram making its descent as planned from its previous 36 by 110-kilometer orbit down to a fine braking phase below six kilometers.
During this time, Sivan had described the final 15-minute descent period as a”very critical process” and that it was “15 minutes of terror” as Vikram slowly reached for the lunar surface. A similar phrase has been used by NASA to describe entry, descent and landing phases of Mars missions.
However, the footage illustrating the spacecraft’s descent trajectory stopped just short of reaching surface due to an error, which occurred about 2.1km (1.3 miles) from the surface.
After minutes of silence, ISRO chairman K Sivan announced that communications with the lander had been lost.
“Vikram lander descent was as planned and nominal performance was observed up to an altitude of 2.1 kilometers. Subsequently, the communications from the lander to ground stations was lost. The data is being analyzed,” Sivan said.
No further information was immediately available and the fate of the lander remains uncertain.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was also present at the ISRO mission operation complex at Bengaluru, told press following the communications loss that, “it is not a small thing that we have achieved. Be courageous.”
Chandrayaan-2 is a three-part mission which consisted of an orbiter, lander, and rover.
Vikram, the 1,471-kilogram lunar lander named after the founder of the ISRO, was poised to be the space agency’s and the country’s bid to make a lunar landing, which will be their first.
Tucked inside Vikram was a small lunar rover called Pragyan (meaning ‘wisdom’ in Sanskrit), which was scheduled to be deployed onto the lunar surface about four hours after touchdown.
The 27kg Moon rover was supposedly meant to analyze the lunar soil with its instruments,
Both the lander and rover would have had a lifetime of one lunar day or 14 Earth days to roam the moon’s south pole, the rover, in particular, could have traveled up to a half a kilometer from the lander.
The mission was intended to build upon the initial findings of the first Chandrayaan mission, searching for water and minerals and measuring moonquakes, among other things.
The country’s first Moon mission – Chandrayaan-1 – was carried out in 2008, which was also the first and most detailed search for water on the lunar surface using radars.
Now that a supposedly more in-depth study on the early findings of the country’s lunar mission is uncertain, the ISRO remains hopeful to continue with the mission through its orbiter that remains to be flying close to the lunar surface.
The orbiter is in a 100×100-kilometer lunar polar orbit where it is expected to operate for one year. Its eight payloads include a Terrain Mapping Camera, which will produce a 3D map for studying lunar mineralogy and geology. It also carries an X-ray spectrometer, solar X-ray monitor, imaging spectrometer, and a high-resolution camera.
Other than the study the Chandrayaan-2 was set to accomplish, it was also poised to become the country’s first successful lunar landing. The feat, so far, has only been achieved by just three other countries namely, the United States, China, and the Soviet Union.
A successful mission would also have paved the way for future Indian missions to land on Mars, and open the possibility of India sending astronauts into space.
It would have also boosted national pride as the mission’s descent was broadcasted online as well as its mission launch was live on TV and Isro’s official social media accounts.