NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has successfully pinged India’s Chandrayaan-3 Vikram lander on the lunar surface, demonstrating a new technique that could aid future moon missions.
LRO Fires Laser, Receives Return Signal from Vikram Lander
On January 18th, 2024, NASA’s LRO fired a laser pulse toward the Chandrayaan-3 lander and received a return signal, officially pinging the lander . The LRO used its onboard Lidar instrument, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, to send out laser pulses that bounce off the moon’s surface and return to the spacecraft . In this case, the laser pulse reflected off the Vikram lander near the lunar south pole.
“This demonstration proves LOLA can serve as a locator for human-made artefacts on the lunar surface, paving the way for future spacecraft to precisely land near artefacts of interest,” said John Keller, LRO project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center .
By receiving a return signal from Vikram, LRO has effectively determined the lander’s precise location on the moon. This paves the way for future missions like Chandrayaan-3 to utilize Vikram as a locator beacon to accurately land a rover in the same area .
Background on Vikram and Chandrayaan-3 Mission
India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission launched in July 2019, aiming to deliver the Vikram lander and Pragyan rover to the lunar south pole region . However, Vikram lost contact during its descent in September 2019 and crash-landed on the moon . The crash-landing site has now been precisely located through LRO’s laser ping.
In response, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) began developing the Chandrayaan-3 mission to attempt another lunar landing in the same region . Chandrayaan-3 will likely launch later this year or early next year. The new mission could take advantage of LRO locating Vikram to accurately target a landing site right next to the crashed lander . This would allow Chandrayaan-3 and any future missions to directly investigate why Vikram failed and gather additional science near the lunar south pole.
“The ability to communicate is important for human exploration of any destination, including the Moon. In the future, astronauts on the lunar surface could set up laser retroreflector networks to aid navigation of across the Moon’s surface and precisely guide robotic and crewed vehicles to landmarks,” said LRO Deputy Project Scientist John Keller .
|Fires laser pulses, measures distance to moon’s surface
|Takes high resolution photos of lunar surface
|Maps lunar temperatures
|Measures lunar radiation environment
Table 1. Key instruments aboard NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that aid lunar exploration.
Significance for Future Lunar Exploration Missions
The successful laser ping of Vikram demonstrates that LRO’s lidar instrument can be used to precisely locate targets on the moon. This could have major implications for future lunar missions, both robotic and human.
Landing on the moon is extremely complex, as evidenced by Vikram’s crash in 2019. Precisely mapping landing sites in advance allows missions to reduce risk and land more accurately . Human missions also require identifying hazardous areas to avoid as well as useful landmarks for navigation. LRO has now proven its ability to act as an orbital locator covering the entire lunar surface.
With NASA and other space agencies aiming to return humans to the Moon this decade under the Artemis program, having detailed maps and targeting capabilities from lunar orbit will be essential . LRO is already 13 years into its mission and will continue aiding future exploration of Earth’s nearest neighbor. Its success pinging Vikram has now opened up an entirely new technique for precise surface targeting as more complex operations at the lunar south pole get underway.
Next Steps for Vikram Lander and Chandrayaan-3
Now that NASA’s LRO has precisely located Vikram on the lunar surface, ISRO can better plan the landing site for India’s upcoming Chandrayaan-3 mission. Chandrayaan-3 will attempt another landing very close to Vikram, possibly by early 2025 . If successful, India would become the fourth nation to softly land on the Moon after the U.S., Soviet Union, and China.
Chandrayaan-3 carries an orbiter, lander, and rover to perform new science of the lunar south pole . Key areas of investigation include lunar geology, fossils records in craters, evidence of water ice, and more – building on discoveries from Chandrayaan-1 in 2008 and Chandrayaan-2’s orbiter component. The south pole also offers near-constant sunlight for solar power.
After pinging Vikram, LRO will further study the lander and identify any accessible parts like antennas or science instruments. These components could still yield valuable data to aid future missions . LRO can also observe Chandrayaan-3’s landing in 2025 up close after precisely directing the mission’s trajectory.
As NASA and ISRO send more ambitious missions to study the Moon and enable future human exploration under Artemis, LRO continues leading the way from lunar orbit – over 13 years since first arriving at the Moon. The robust spacecraft still has plenty of fuel and will likely operate for the rest of the decade, pinpointing perfect landing spots near lunar water ice and taking dramatic images for public engagement. LRO’s eyes will prove crucial as humans use pioneering instruments and technologies like Vikram to establish a permanent presence on Earth’s closest celestial neighbor after over 50 years.
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