India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission to the Moon was, in a word, ambitious. Lifting off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on July 22nd, the mission hoped to simultaneously deliver an orbiter, lander, and rover to our nearest celestial neighbor. The launch and flight to the Moon went off without a hitch, and while there were certainly some tense moments, the spacecraft ultimately put itself into a stable lunar orbit and released the free-flying lander so it could set off on its independent mission.
Unfortunately, just seconds before the Vikram lander touched down, an anomaly occurred. At this point the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) still doesn’t know exactly what happened, but based on the live telemetry stream from the lander, some have theorized the craft started tumbling or otherwise became unstable between three and four kilometers above the surface.
In fact, for a brief moment the telemetry display actually showed the Vikram lander completely inverted, with engines seemingly accelerating the spacecraft towards the surface of the Moon. It’s unclear whether this was an accurate depiction of the lander’s orientation in the final moments before impact or a glitch in the real-time display, but it’s certainly not what you want to see when your craft is just seconds away from touchdown.
But for Chandrayaan-2, the story doesn’t end here. The bulk of the mission’s scientific goals were always to be accomplished by the orbiter itself. There were of course a number of scientific payloads aboard the Vikram lander, and even the Pragyan rover that it was carrying down to the surface, but they were always secondary objectives at best. The ISRO was well aware of the difficulties involved in making a soft landing on the Moon, and planned their mission objectives accordingly.
Rather than feel sorrow over the presumed destruction of Vikram and Pragyan, let’s take a look at the scientific hardware aboard the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter, and the long mission that still lies ahead of it.
On July 22nd, India launched an ambitious mission to simultaneously deliver an orbiter, lander, and rover to the Moon. Launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on a domestically-built GSLV Mk III rocket, Chandrayaan-2 is expected to enter lunar orbit on August 20th. If everything goes well, the mission’s lander module will touch down on September 7th.
Attempting a multifaceted mission of this nature is a bold move, but the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) does have the benefit of experience. The Chandrayaan-1 mission, launched in 2008, spent nearly a year operating in lunar orbit. That mission also included the so-called Moon Impact Probe (MIP), which deliberately crashed into the surface near the Shackleton crater. The MIP wasn’t designed to survive the impact, but it still secured India a position on the short list of countries that have placed an object on the lunar surface.
If the lander component of Chandrayaan-2, named Vikram after Indian space pioneer Vikram Sarabhai, can safely touch down on the lunar surface it will be a historic accomplishment for the ISRO. To date, the only countries to perform a controlled landing on the Moon are the Soviet Union, the United States, and China. Earlier in the year, it seemed Israel would secure its position as the fourth country to perform the feat with their Beresheet spacecraft, but a last second fault caused the craft to crash into the surface. The loss of Beresheet, while unfortunate, has given India an unexpected chance to take the coveted fourth position despite Israel’s head start.
We have a few months before the big event, but so far, everything has gone according to plan for Chandrayaan-2. As we await word that the spacecraft has successfully entered orbit around the Moon, let’s take a closer look at how this ambitious mission is supposed to work.
We humans are good at a lot of things, but making holes in the ground has to be among our greatest achievements. We’ve gone from grubbing roots with a stick to feeding billions with immense plows pulled by powerful tractors, and from carving simple roads across the land to drilling tunnels under the English Channel. Everywhere we go, we move dirt and rock out of the way, remodeling the planet to suit our needs.
Other worlds are subject to our propensity for digging holes too, and in the 50-odd years that we’ve been visiting or sending robots as our proxies, we’ve made our marks on quite a few celestial bodies. So far, all our digging has been in the name of science, either to explore the physical and chemical properties of these far-flung worlds in situ, or to actually package up a little bit of the heavens for analysis back home. One day we’ll no doubt be digging for different reasons, but until then, here’s a look at the holes we’ve dug and how we dug them.