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India loses contact with its Moon lander minutes before touchdown

The Chandrayaan-2 mission would have been the first to land near the lunar south pole.

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A video on Chandrayaan 2 India's Moon mission is projected at the media centre at Indian Space Research Organization

Media at the Indian space agency's tracking and command centre, which lost contact with its Moon lander on 7 September.Credit: Jagadeesh NV/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

India’s space agency lost contact with its Moon lander during the final few minutes of the craft’s descent early on 7 September, Indian time. It was the country’s first attempt to place a craft on the Moon.

Mission control at the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) tweeted that the descent had gone as planned until the lander, called Vikram, reached 2.1 kilometres above the lunar surface. “Subsequently, communication from Lander to the ground stations was lost,” the tweet said. “Data is being analyzed.”

The Chandrayaan-2 orbiter later located Vikram using its on-board cameras. The agency’s chairman Kailasavadivoo Sivan told the Press Trust of India that it must have been a hard landing. Efforts to establish contact with the lander are continuing, he said.

Had the touchdown been successful, India would have become the first country to land near the lunar south pole, and the fourth country to make a soft landing on the Moon, after the United States, the Soviet Union and China.

Earlier this week, Vikram separated from the orbiter, which is currently travelling around the Moon.

The Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft Lander module at the Indian Space Research Organization in June 2019

The four-legged Vikram carried four instruments, including one from NASA.Credit: Karen Dias/Bloomberg via Getty

The lander started its 15-minute automated descent at about 1:40 a.m. Indian time. The first phase of ‘rough braking’ brought the lander down from 30 kilometres to 7.4 kilometres above the Moon’s surface. During the second phase, it reached 5 kilometres from the surface. The craft continued into its third phase until it reached 2.1 kilometres above the surface. It was then, about three minutes before the craft’s planned touchdown, that trouble struck.

ISRO’s automated landing system was a new and untested technology for the agency. Sivan said in August, “The soft-landing is the one aspect of the mission we have never attempted before. It will be difficult.”

In 2008, the agency deliberated crashed an impact probe, released by the Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter, onto the Moon.

Orbiter on track

Although Vikram’s landing did not go as planned, the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter, which carries eight Indian instruments, is functioning normally, ISRO officials said. Some of these instruments will search for signs of water on the Moon.

Vikram was carrying three Indian instruments and one from NASA, and the rover was carrying two Indian instruments. They were designed to gather data on the Moon’s surface.

It is the second time this year that a mission to the Moon has encountered problems during landing. In April, the Israeli spacecraft Beresheet crash-landed on the surface after having engine trouble just moments before touchdown. The team behind the mission had hoped Beresheet would be the first privately funded craft to make a controlled landing on the Moon.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02697-z

Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 09 September 2019: This story has been updated to include comments from Kailasavadivoo Sivan.

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