India’s interplanetary space program is young but shows no lack of ambition. In 2008 the country launched a spacecraft, Chandrayaan-1, into lunar orbit for the first time. Next came its Mars Orbiter Mission, which arrived in orbit around the Red Planet in 2014. Today, sadly, India apparently fell short of what could have been its greatest milestone yet—an uncrewed landing on the surface of the moon as part of its Chandrayaan-2 mission. If it had been successful, it would have become only the fourth nation in history to perform a soft lunar landing, after the U.S., the former Soviet Union and China.
At 4:20 P.M. EST, the signal from the Vikram lander was lost after its trajectory began to deviate from its planned path, and silence settled over the crowd gathered at the mission’s control center in Bengaluru. At the time, it was in the “fine braking phase” of its descent and about two kilometers above the lunar surface. Although details have yet to emerge, it appears something went wrong during the descent, likely bringing this exciting portion of the Chandrayaan-2 mission to a somber end. The lander is believed to have crashed into the lunar surface. Earlier this week, it had separated from the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter before beginning its lonely voyage to the surface. The descent’s final moments, described in advance as a “terrifying 15 minutes” by the head of the Indian Space Research Organization, would have seen Vikram’s autonomous landing system use thrusters to guide the spacecraft to a gentle touchdown in the lunar dust.
“It’s not a small thing that we have achieved,” said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, addressing the disappointed crowd in the control center. “Be courageous.”
Although the landing has likely failed, India’s quest for lunar greatness continues—the Chandrayaan-2 mission will go on with just an orbiter, and the nation still plans for future forays to the moon.
“This marks the second mission that India has done to the moon,” says James Carpenter of the Directorate of Human and Robotic Exploration at the European Space Agency. “This is their first mission to the lunar surface, and I think that’s important for India, but it also marks the continuation of a growing international interest in lunar exploration.”
About four hours after landing, Vikram would have extended a ramp, allowing a small six-wheeled rover called Pragyan to embark onto the lunar surface. Equipped with cameras and two spectrometers, the rover would have explored the surface of the moon and sent a wealth of data back to Earth.
Together the lander and rover were expected to last at least one lunar day, or 14 Earth days, on the moon’s surface until night fell and temperatures plummeted. During the lunar day, the rover could have traveled as far as half a kilometer from the lander. Aside from being a source of national pride, those 14 Earth days could have provided crucial insights to aid future exploration plans for lunar hopefuls around the globe.
Interest in the moon has surged in recent years, with multiple countries and private companies developing missions to visit the lunar surface. In January China’s Chang’e 4 lander became the first spacecraft in history to soft-land on the far side of the moon; it continues to operate there today, alongside a rover it deployed. In April a privately developed lander from Israel called Beresheet attempted to touch down on the moon’s near side but crashed in the last moments of its planned descent. Meanwhile NASA is aiming to land astronauts on the moon as early as 2024, and several other spacefaring nations are vigorously pursuing additional surface missions of their own.
Despite the failure of its lander, the Chandrayaan-2 mission, which launched in July, remains emblematic of the technological progress driving the resurgent interest in lunar exploration around the globe, notes Jonathan McDowell of the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution. “The more countries that are able to do this, the more established the technology is,” he says. “It’s not just a couple of superpowers now.” Not that technology alone drives these plans: beyond national prestige, the new generation of lunar explorers are interested in the exciting scientific opportunities associated with reaching the lunar surface, as well as the moon’s untapped and potentially vast resources.
The lunar south pole is believed to harbor substantial deposits of water ice at and just beneath its surface, a resource that could be invaluable for constructing future human settlements on the moon. As such, exploring this region has been high on the agenda of many nations, and India’s arrival ahead of the pack should not be overlooked. The prospecting it can now perform with Chandrayaan-2 could be a game changer for lunar exploration, says Roger Launius, NASA’s former chief historian. “You can melt [the ice] into water and turn it into hydrogen and oxygen, which we can use for all kinds of things and change the nature of what is required to sustain a lunar base.”
Naturally, the Chandrayaan-2 mission was very much designed with this ice in mind: the orbiter, built to operate for a year, will use radar and infrared measurements to map lunar ice deposits from on high. The Vikram lander was equipped with a suite of scientific instruments that would have investigated the lunar surface in more intimate detail. The lander carried a thermal probe to take the moon’s temperature up to 10 centimeters underground and was also equipped with a seismometer to monitor moonquakes, which could have provided important information about the moon’s deep interior. And the Pragyan rover’s two spectrometers would have revealed the composition of lunar regolith, or soil, across the rover’s traverse. All of this, says Ajey Lele of the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in India, would have allowed scientists “to understand what sort of minerals are available on the surface of the moon.”
Although with what is most likely a crippled mission and injured pride, India’s lunar aspirations are undimmed. The nation still has plans for Chandrayaan-3, a lunar-sample-return mission, for the 2020s, as well as launches of Indian astronauts into Earth orbit. “The gap between [India] and the big four [the U.S., Russia, Europe and China] is shrinking,” McDowell says. Those countries are no strangers to setbacks in space. And now, alongside its successes, India, too, knows that space is not only hard but also heartbreaking.