India achieved a major milestone in its space program on December 28th, 2023 when its Chandrayaan-3 lunar lander successfully touched down near the south pole of the Moon. Coming after the disappointment of the crash landing of Chandrayaan-2 in 2019, this long-awaited moment marks India as only the 4th country to successfully soft land on the lunar surface.
Lead Up to the Mission
Chandrayaan-3 was conceived as a follow up to India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission in 2019. That ambitious mission aimed to land a rover near the south pole to analyze lunar soil and search for water. However, the lander component crashed during descent due to a technical glitch. This failure did not deter the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), who quickly made plans for a reattempted soft landing.
Chandrayaan-3 lifted off on November 30th aboard India’s GSLV Mark III rocket. After achieving lunar orbit insertion, the lander separated from the orbiter on December 26th to begin its descent towards the target landing site. In the tense minutes before touchdown ISRO engineers held their breath, hoping the systems would perform flawlessly this time.
At approximately 3:11 AM IST on December 28th, 2023, Chandrayaan-3 safely landed just 500 meters from the target landing point. This marked the first-ever soft landing by India in the lunar southern hemisphere. It also made India only the 4th country to achieve a precise soft landing on the Moon, after the United States, USSR/Russia, and China.
The site near the crater Manzinus C is of high scientific interest as a surface water cold trap that could harbor water ice. If confirmed, this would represent an invaluable resource for future human exploration. The solar-powered Chandrayaan-3 lander carries several science instruments to analyze lunar soil composition.
ISRO Chairman Dr. Sivan said “Today is historic, it paves the way for leapfrogging of India’s space capabilities and opens up new vistas for lunar exploration.”
The Chandrayaan-3 success has been met with applause from the global community. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson congratulated the ISRO team, stating “India’s substantial investment and commitment to space exploration will benefit their country and humanity as a whole.”
The XPrize Foundation also announced that Chandrayaan-3’s feat will qualify ISRO for their new $5 million Lunar Competition prize for precise and soft landings.
Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA science said “Chandrayaan-3’s soft landing and science operations will give new insights into lunar polar volatiles and geology”.
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India is now positioned to join an elite club of nations exploring the lunar surface.
Now that Chandrayaan-3 has landed safely, it embarks on its science mission expected to last 14 days. Using its onboard instruments, it will analyze the dust and regolith to determine precise mineral composition and search for signatures of water ice.
In late 2023, India also plans to launch its Chandrayaan-4 rover mission which will explore a wider area and drill below the lunar surface. ISRO is reportedly reviving collaborations with Japan and Russia for future manned missions to build a lunar base.
Cost Effective Exploration
India has a storied history of exploring space on a shoestring budget while still achieving tremendous scientific gains. At just US$150 million, the cost of Chandrayaan-3 is less than half that of most US or Chinese lunar landers. ISRO engineers have delivered an incredible achievement cost-effectively using mostly indigenous technology.
Chandrayaan-3 paves the way for an exciting decade ahead for India in space exploration. Its success demonstrates India’s technological prowess in precision landing capabilities vital to unlocking lunar resources for the benefit of humanity. This historic landing firmly embeds India’s flag on our nearest celestial neighbor.
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