Background on Chandrayaan-2 Mission
India’s historic Chandrayaan-2 mission launched in July 2019 with the goal of becoming the first space agency to soft land a rover near the lunar south pole. The mission consisted of an orbiter, lander (Vikram), and rover (Pragyan). After achieving lunar orbit, the lander separated from the orbiter on September 2nd to attempt a soft landing on the moon’s surface.
Tragically, the lander lost communication during its powered descent and crashed on the moon. The incident dashed India’s hopes of joining the US and China as the only countries to successfully soft land on the lunar surface. However, the orbiter component continued functioning in lunar orbit.
Breakthrough Communication Achieved with NASA Orbiter
On January 18th, 2024, NASA announced that its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) successfully pinged the wreckage of India’s Vikram lander using an onboard laser altimeter. By firing laser pulses at the lander’s retroreflector and measuring the time for the return signal, LRO obtained an exact location fix for Vikram in the lunar south pole region.
This achievement opens the door for locating and communicating with future lunar landers and rovers using laser links. Precisely locating lost spacecraft also aids in planning future landing attempts in hazardous regions like the rugged south pole.
Implications for India’s Chandrayaan-3 Mission
The ability for LRO to locate Vikram bodes well for India’s planned Chandrayaan-3 mission. Scheduled to launch in 2024, Chandrayaan-3 will attempt another soft landing near the lunar south pole. Engineers can now use LRO’s Vikram data to avoid hazards in the landing zone.
Furthermore, the success proves the value of equipping craft with laser retroreflectors. Chandrayaan-3 will carry an array of corner cube retroreflectors allowing not only LRO, but also future orbiters, landers, and rovers to locate and communicate with the lander after touchdown. By opening a laser communications link, controllers gain options to rescue stranded spacecraft.
|Orbiter operational, lander crashed on surface
|Future attempt to soft land on moon
Other Applications of Lunar Laser Ranging
Beyond spacecraft tracking, laser links provide numerous advantages over traditional radio on the lunar surface. Lasers enable higher data rates while using less size, weight, and power. NASA also foresees utilizing lasers for synchronizing rover clocks and conducting sub-millimeter gravity surveys.
Setting up a network of laser retroreflectors on the moon surface and in orbit can facilitate precision navigation. Autonomous rovers would determine position by timing laser pulses to fixed reflectors. A system akin to GPS may one day support surface operations.
Outlook Going Forward
The success of NASA’s LRO pinging Chandrayaan-2’s lander may usher in a new era of precision laser tracking and communication around the moon. The demonstration should boost India’s confidence for acing the tricky Chandrayaan-3 soft landing using laser aids. Other countries and companies racing to the moon, like China, Russia, Japan and SpaceX, will likely adopt laser technology to boost mission success. Ultimately a boom in lunar activity over the next decade hinges on mastering precise and reliable moon landings.
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