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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

India’s Lander Touches Down on the Moon. Russia’s Has Crashed

Today, India’s Chandrayaan-3 became the first spacecraft to successfully land near the lunar south pole, and India became the fourth country to make a soft landing anywhere on lunar soil, following the former Soviet Union, the United States, and China. The robotic vehicle touched down at 8:33 am Eastern time, nearly six weeks after its launch. The craft includes a four-legged lander and a small rover whose purpose is to study the lunar regolith and look for signs of water ice during a two-week mission.

But Russia’s Luna-25 lander wasn’t so lucky. On August 20, the craft malfunctioned, and it appears to have crashed while preparing for a landing planned for the next day. Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, had intended to deploy Luna-25 for a yearlong mission near the Boguslavsky impact crater, where its eight scientific instruments would also have examined properties of the regolith and pockets of water ice.

Chandrayaan-3’s landing was accomplished without ground intervention. The craft’s autonomous landing system took control about one hour before the start of the descent. India’s space agency, the Indian Space Research Organization, or ISRO, provided a live telecast in both Hindi and English.

The power descent phase began at about 8:15 am ET, during which the craft’s speed slowed from 1,680 to 358 meters per second, and the altitude dropped from 30 to 7.4 kilometers over a period of 11.5 minutes. During the following altitude hold phase, the craft turned its altimeters toward the moon’s surface for 10 seconds to take a reading of how far it was from the regolith. Then began the fine braking phrase, which ran for nearly 3 minutes, as the altitude was reduced to 800 meters.

The vertical descent phase began around 8:29 am ET, and the craft began its approach to the lunar surface, turning to orient its four legs toward the landing site. It briefly hovered 150 meters above the surface as its sensors took readings of the safety of the landing site and retargeted accordingly. Then, as it successfully set down on the regolith, the people at the ISRO mission control headquarters in Bengaluru broke into cheers. “India is on the moon!” exclaimed ISRO chairman Sreedhara Somanath.Somanath then asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was watching the telecast remotely, to speak. “Friends, on this joyous occasion, I would like to address all the people of the world, the people of every country and region. India’s successful moon mission is not just India’s alone,” said Modi, during a part of the address delivered in English. “This success belongs to all of humanity, and it will help moon missions by other countries in the future. I’m confident that all countries in the world, including those from the global south, are capable of achieving such things. We can all aspire for the moon and beyond.”

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Roscosmos has released little information about Luna-25 so far, but officials posted brief statements on Telegram, saying that on August 19, the spacecraft malfunctioned while firing its engines to maneuver into a prelanding orbit. “At about 14:57 Moscow time, communication with the Luna-25 spacecraft was interrupted,” reads the statement, which WIRED used Google to translate. Roscosmos was unable to restore contact with the craft, and based on the agency’s preliminary analysis, they believe it was destroyed after crashing into the lunar surface. In an interview on Russia 24, Roscosmos chief Yuri Borisov blamed the crash on engine failure, saying that the engines incorrectly fired for 127 seconds rather than 84 seconds during the maneuver.

It’s been nearly a half-century since 1976, when Roscosmos’s Soviet predecessor last sent a successful lander to the moon. Considering the struggles of the Russian civil space program, morale must be low there now, says Anatoly Zak, creator and publisher of the independent publication RussianSpaceWeb. “It’s a flagship mission. In the entire post-Soviet period, they had three attempts to go beyond low Earth orbit and explore celestial bodies: Mars 96, Phobos-Grunt in 2011, and this one. All of them failed, so it’s very depressing,” he says.

The bumpy road on this race to the moon’s southern pole shows that developing a lunar economy will be complex and could take decades to realize. That part of the moon is particularly tantalizing because its water ice could be extracted for oxygen or rocket propellant, and it has “peaks of eternal light,” spots that receive near-constant solar illumination.

Getting a craft safely to the moon, and especially to the rough terrain of the south pole, poses many challenges. “You know the saying, ‘Space is hard.’ It’s because the environment we’re trying to operate in is not the environment where most of our technology has matured,” says Phil Metzger, a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida who studies space economics. To name just a few of the technical factors that have to go absolutely right, the vehicle has to survive the jolt of launch, the vacuum of space, and the challenges of heat transfer and space radiation—plus communicate with Earth, despite a significant time delay. “All these things add up,” he says.

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Landing attempts on Mars and a comet have proven to be incredibly arduous, and the moon’s unique topography comes with its own difficulties. “It’s a complex engineering undertaking to not only design the vehicles to get to the moon, but to design the control systems that have to work autonomously and that have to be able to account for the limited atmosphere, rugged terrain, the variation in lighting. All of those have to be taken into consideration in concert,” says Ron Birk, a development executive at the Aerospace Corporation, a nonprofit think tank, and president of the American Astronautical Society.

Safe landing spots—ones without too many shadows and steep slopes—are limited. The moon’s south pole spans some 100,000 square kilometers, about the size of the state of Kentucky. Ideally, space agencies want to pick a spot that is close to a place where they could ultimately set up a lunar base or mining operation. (While the Outer Space Treaty forbids nations from owning territory on the moon, the Artemis Accords allow them to set up exclusive “safety zones” around equipment or facilities.)

And nations should avoid cluttering those spots with mechanical detritus, which could complicate future missions. Like campers heading into the backcountry, it’s important to think carefully about what you pack with you and what you take out, Birk says.

India’s success doesn’t mean the end of the race toward the moon’s south pole, but it does boost India’s standing. “This will certainly contribute to its status as a rising power with technological prowess. What’s happening in space is a reflection of what’s happening geopolitically on Earth,” says Cassandra Steer, an expert on space law and space security at the Australian National University in Canberra. And while Roscosmos suffered a setback, this isn’t the end of their moon program either, or their role in the new lunar competition. The Soviets beat the US at every stage of the 20th-century space race, Steer says, except for the landing of astronauts on the moon. Next, Russia intends to collaborate with China on a lunar research station.

Over the past decade, only China’s space program has achieved considerable success landing spacecraft on the moon, including its Chang'e 3, 4, and 5 missions in 2013, 2019, and 2020. India’s Chandrayaan-2 and Israel’s Beresheet lander failed in 2019, and Japan’s Ispace lander failed this April.

In fact, until China made its first landing, the moon had arguably been neglected for decades. NASA ended its Apollo mission in 1972, and the USSR’s Luna-24 mission in 1976 was the last successful lunar landing. That could mean limited institutional memory, especially for Russia, making it tough to develop and deploy new moon missions, Metzger says.

Over the past few decades, Russia has been trying to resuscitate its program, but with little success. Roscosmos has Luna-26 and Luna-27 planned for 2027 and 2029, as the agency aims to bring an orbiter and a larger lander to the moon. But their limited funding, thanks to sanctions following the Ukraine invasion, means these followup missions will likely be delayed, Zak says. And if the space agency decides to overhaul their propulsion system design after investigating the failure of Luna-25, that could be another reason for delays, he adds.

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NASA has fared better with its Artemis program, which last year sent the uncrewed Artemis 1 to orbit the moon and is aiming for a crewed landing in 2026. But the program has faced its own challenges: NASA plans on using a SpaceX Starship lander, though, as its abortive test flight in April shows, Starship clearly has a long way to go. More than half of the 10 cubesat satellites deployed by Artemis 1 experienced technical glitches or lost contact with Earth, including the Japanese Omotenashi probe, which was unable to land on the moon as planned.

NASA has increasingly relied on commercial partners in a bid to boost the speed and lower the price of moon exploration—moving some of the costs onto businesses, rather than taxpayers. But these companies, too, are new players in the space race. In late 2024, NASA plans to send its Viper rover on an Astrobotic lander, though that company’s first moon lander, meant to demonstrate the technology, hasn’t even launched yet. NASA has also charged Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, and Draper with delivering a variety of payloads to the lunar surface over the next couple years.

In the meantime, nations like India, Japan, and Israel have begun moon programs from scratch. India next plans to collaborate with Japan on the Lunar Polar Exploration rover, which would launch no sooner than 2026.

“We have set the bar now so high. Nothing less spectacular than this is going to be inspiring for any of us in the future,” said Shri M. Sankaran, director of ISRO’s U R Rao Satellite Centre, speaking on today’s telecast. “We will now be looking at putting a man in space, putting a spacecraft on Venus, and landing on Mars. Those efforts have been ongoing for years. This success today will inspire us and spur us to take those efforts even more strongly to make our country proud again and again and again.”

Updated 8/23/2023 12:00 pm ET: This story was updated to correct the ISRO chief's name.

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