India Becomes 4th Nation to Put a Lander on Moon Following Russian Crash

The successful Chandrayaan-3 mission also marked the world’s first landing in the moon’s south polar region.

India moon mission Chandrayaan-3 lander

The Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) Chandrayaan-3 mission to the lunar south pole took flight in July. [Courtesy: ISRO]

Space exploration is no longer the two-horse race it once was. While the U.S. and the former Soviet Union dominated the early decades of lunar missions, countries around the world are now racing to the moon’s surface—including the most populous nation on Earth.

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, India’s Vikram lunar lander, part of the country’s Chandrayaan-3 (literal translation: “moon vehicle”) mission, successfully touched down on the moon’s surface. 

The “soft landing” cemented India as just the fourth nation to land a spacecraft on the earthly satellite alongside the U.S., the Soviet Union, and China. India is also the first country to land in the lunar south polar region, which is littered with craters and considered particularly difficult to reach.

A sketch of Chandrayaan-3’s approach to the lunar surface. [Courtesy: ISRO]

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), the nation’s space agency, shared images captured by the lander as it approached the moon’s jagged facade.

The mission’s success has drawn the praise of observers worldwide, from NASA administrator Bill Nelson to European Space Agency director general Josef Aschbacher and even Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also chimed in through a statement: “This success belongs to all of humanity. And it will help moon missions by other countries in the future. I am confident that all countries in the world, including those from the Global South, are capable of achieving such feats. We can all aspire for the moon and beyond.”

The SUV-sized Vikram lander and a smaller rover housed within, named Pragyan, will spend the next two weeks performing an array of scientific experiments. The mission will study things like lunar mineral composition and seismic activity and, crucially, search for water ice shrouded by the south pole’s abyssal craters and craggy peaks.

Race to the Moon

India is one of several global superpowers with its eye on the moon, and its rendezvous with the lunar surface was a big deal for the country’s citizens. The hope is the mission is a sign of things to come. But other nations are now racing to send humans to the lunar south pole.

Chandrayaan-3 took off in July, sending the uncrewed Vikram lander hurtling hundreds of thousands of miles toward the desolate rocky satellite. Getting there was no small task—in fact, this week’s landing followed ISRO’s Chandrayaan-2 mission, which failed to land Vikram on the moon in 2019.

The Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) Vikram lander sits staged during the lead-up to Chandrayaan-3. [Courtesy: ISRO]

It also came just days after Russia’s Luna-25 probe careened into the lunar surface. That mission also sought to land in the south polar region. The crash and India’s newfound success represent a major blow to Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, which said it lost contact with the lander shortly after it fired its engines in preparation for descent. Luna-25 was the agency’s first moon landing attempt in nearly half a century.

An uncrewed Japanese lunar mission ended in similar fashion in April. The mission’s lander was built by lunar robotic exploration company Ispace.

The private firm’s involvement in the mission is not uncommon in the modern era of space exploration. Increasingly, NASA has enlisted the private sector to assist with uncrewed launches. Two such missions—one each helmed by Houston-based Intuitive Mechanics and Pittsburgh-based Astrobotics—are scheduled to launch in the next 12 months. SpaceX has also become a key partner for NASA, providing it with spacecraft like the Crew Dragon.

The ISRO will now compete with NASA and the China Manned Space Agency to land the first humans on the moon’s south pole—both are expected to launch crewed missions to the region before the end of the decade. China's is expected to arrive by 2030.

The U.S. effort, Artemis III, scheduled for 2025, has enlisted SpaceX to provide the landing system that will transport humans between lunar orbit and the surface. The expedition would put American astronauts on the moon for the first time since the 1972 Apollo 17 mission.

NASA is also expected to fly Indian astronauts to the International Space Station next year. That agreement took shape around the same time India became the 27th country to sign the Artemis Accords during a June meeting between Modi and President Joe Biden. It will work with the U.S. and other signatories to establish principles to guide cooperation among nations in space exploration.

India, the U.S., and other global leaders are racing to the moon’s southern tip because there is thought to be an untapped supply of water ice nestled within the region’s craters and trenches. NASA probes and other spacecraft have so far identified small amounts of the frozen compound near the south pole, which is assumed to have a higher concentration than in other regions.

“There’s water there, which was one of the findings of Chandrayaan-1,” Ian Whittaker, a senior lecturer in physics at Nottingham Trent University, told Al Jazeera. “This water can be used for a lot of things. We could also look for building materials.”

Lunar water ice could provide records of the moon’s history and clues to the origins of oceans. But on future moon missions, it could also serve as a source of drinking water for astronauts or a coolant for their equipment. These water reserves could even be broken down to produce breathing oxygen or hydrogen fuel.

The discovery and extraction of lunar water ice could be critical to the formation of long-term human settlements on the moon. Logistically, transporting water from the Earth to the moon would be a nightmare. But if astronauts can find a way to harness the frozen sea beneath the lunar surface, countries could begin to build bases that may one day serve as waypoints for expeditions to Mars and beyond.

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Jack is a staff writer covering advanced air mobility, including everything from drones to unmanned aircraft systems to space travel—and a whole lot more. He spent close to two years reporting on drone delivery for FreightWaves, covering the biggest news and developments in the space and connecting with industry executives and experts. Jack is also a basketball aficionado, a frequent traveler and a lover of all things logistics.

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