On September 7, 2019, India made history by becoming just the fourth nation to successfully deploy an orbiter and land a probe on the Moon. It was after journeying millions of kilometers, manoeuvring difficulties in the path, deploying the Orbiter successfully, and coming close to a perfect soft-landing, the Vikram lander lost contact in the final few hundred meters. Notwithstanding the hard landing and loss of communication with the lander, the mission has achieved almost 95% success in its objectives along with imparting very important lessons on space explorations to scientists all over the world.
In 2014, Indian Space Research Organistion (ISRO) had demonstrated to the world its technological prowess by putting the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) in the Martian orbit and in the process became the only country to do so in its first attempt. Earlier, in 2008 India had successfully pulled off its first mission to the Moon, Chandrayaan-1 and the world took notice and the scientific community expected more from ISRO, given its envious track record. Chandrayaan 2 had already been planned and the world was waiting for the mission to succeed.
Vision and Perseverance
Chandrayaan 2 was a mission unlike any before. Leveraging nearly a decade of scientific research and engineering development, India's second lunar expedition was to reveal details of the unexplored section of the Moon — its South Polar Region. The mission was launched with the aim of gaining a better understanding of the origin and evolution of the Moon by conducting detailed topographical studies, comprehensive mineralogical analyses, and a host of other experiments on the Moon.
Chandrayaan 2 will take the discoveries made by Chandrayaan 1, such as the presence of water molecules on the Moon and new rock types, forward and get a detailed understanding of it surface and composition.
Apart from the technical studies, Chandrayaan 2’s aims are threefold:
- Expand India's footprint in space
- Inspire future generation of scientists, engineers, and explorers
- Gain further foothold in international aspirations
The history of the missions of soft-landing on the Moon is riddled with failures and numerous attempts. The success rate in this arena has been hardly 37 per cent. As NASA tweeted, ‘Space is Hard’ and it gets harder if you are on your own. After Russia backed off (Russia was supposed to help ISRO with the lander) from being part of Chandrayaan 2, ISRO set upon the task to complete the mission on its own. ISRO then designed and built its lander, orbiter and probes which were the integral parts of the mission.
The initial launch date of Chandrayaan 2 was set at July 15, 2019. The honourable President Shri Ramnath Kovind was present at the facility to watch this launch. Though everything was going as per plan, ISRO called off the launch after last-minute checks. This thorough professional judgement of ISRO allowed it to scrutinise the mission parameters further satisfactorily and were ready for the start within a week.
Trip to the Moon
The launch of Chandrayaan 2 on GSLV Mark III vehicle, nicknamed ‘Bahubali’, was set for July 22nd. After a textbook launch, various orbit raising manoeuvres were undertaken to take the mission to a particular altitude. On August 14, the Trans-Lunar Injection (TLI) was carried out and, subsequently, the mission reached the Moon's orbit on August 20. Chandrayaan-2 completed several orbits around Earth and then the Moon, slowly making its way closer to the lunar surface and taking photographs the whole time.
On September 2, the Vikram lander separated from the Orbiter and began to make its descent. The Orbiter was set on its path around the moon and began its functions as intended. On September 6, the lander entered the moon’s atmosphere and preparations were made for soft-landing the next day. The nation and the scientific community waited with bated breath.
On September 7, all communications were normal until the lander was within 2 km of the moon. As the nation watched along with PM Modi, ISRO declared that the communication with the Vikram lander had been lost. It was suspected that the thrusters which were to aid in the soft-landing had failed and the lander had made a hard landing. But all hope was not lost, as the Orbiter of Chandrayaan-2 remained in Moon’s orbit with its high-resolution camera, was able to spot the lander. ISRO is trying to revive the communication with the lander within the next few days.
While the Chandrayaan-2 mission has not gone as expected, it cannot be called a failure. The Chandrayaan-2 orbiter will continue to monitor the Moon for up to seven years and the high-resolution images it takes will be vital to future international efforts to land on the Moon.
Landing on the Moon is a Gordian knot
The mission to land Vikram on the Moon is similar to that of Israel’s unsuccessful attempt earlier this year. ‘Beresheet’ was a small robotic lunar lander and probe operated by the Israel Aerospace Industries which was launched in February 2019. On April 11, 2019, the lander was to perform the soft-landing manoeuvre and start exploring. However, the lander's gyroscopes failed to cause the main engine to shut off, which caused the lander to crash on the Moon.
Further, only half of the lunar missions involving landing on moon surface have succeeded in the last six decades. NASA says that there have been a total of 109 lunar missions from 1958, out of which only 61 were successful. This brings us to the question as to why is landing on the moon so difficult.
Earth is rotating and also hurtling through space at more than 100,000 kms per hour. The Moon is almost 400,000 kms away and travelling around 4,000 kms per hour as it orbits Earth. To reach the Moon, one has to escape Earth’s gravity and ensure you’re going at the right speed to orbit Earth a few times before moving far enough to be caught by the Moon. Then you slowly decrease your distance to the lunar surface, inching closer over several orbits until you are low enough to use powered assistance to land.
We should remember, that it took the United States and Russia decades to design, plan and execute missions to the Moon. Only after several attempts and failures were they able to land successfully on the lunar surface.
ISRO – India’s Shining Star
Despite the inherent challenges in a project of this nature, ISRO has recorded a whopping 90-95% success rate in each stage of the Chandrayaan-2 project. In a media update, ISRO has stated that Chandrayaan-2 was a highly complex mission, which represented a significant technological leap compared to the previous missions of ISRO. Given the complexity of the project and the fact that ISRO was attempting the same for the first time, the rate of success is unparalleled for any space organisation across the world.
The entire world watched each phase of Chandrayaan-2 and ISRO has made the country proud today by achieving the targets is each phase, notwithstanding the loss of communication with the Vikram Lander. The present state of the project is no mean feat in terms of space science and this has been recognised by space scientists and technological experts from the world over. Leaders across the world have congratulated ISRO for the project and the goals it has already achieved.
PM Narendra Modi, along with students from various schools who won ISRO's quiz competition, watched Chandrayaan-2 landing live from the ISRO tracking centre in Bengaluru. The PM was accompanied by ISRO Chairman Dr K Sivan and other scientists who kept him informed of the developments.
After witnessing the Chandrayaan-2 landing, PM addressed the scientists where he said that minor hiccups will not deter their resolve to find success in future attempts and other missions. Resilience is an intrinsic quality of our civilisation and we have bounced back every time we have had set backs, said the PM. In his address the PM also thanked the families of the scientists whose sacrifice is also very important for the success of the missions. It is because of their efforts that ISRO is one of the top space organisations in the world. Their success in Mangalyaan has showcased this amply, he said.