India launches Chandrayaan-Three to the moon, hoping for a profitable touchdown

On July 14, 2023 at 2:35 p.m. Indian Standard Time (5:05 a.m. EST), the Indian Space Resource Organization (ISRO) successfully launched its Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft from the Satish Dhawan Space Center, the primary spaceport of the ISRO. The goal of the mission is to bring India’s first lander (Vikram) and rover (Pragyan) to the lunar surface. The landing on the moon is scheduled for August 23, 2023. This mission comes after ISRO’s Chandrayaan-2 Vikram lander crashed on the Moon on September 6, 2019 due to a short-term glitch in the navigation software. While ISRO said everything was going according to plan, they unexpectedly lost contact with the Vikram lander about 2.1 kilometers (1.3 miles) above the lunar surface.

Following in the footsteps of its predecessor, Chandrayaan-3 will attempt to land Vikram and Pragyan near the lunar south pole, hoping to use their respective science payloads to conduct in situ experiments, analysis and observations to gain insights to gain in the composition of the moon. These include insights into the composition of the lunar surface, the presence of water ice in the lunar regolith, the history of lunar impacts, and the lunar atmospheric evolution. The spacecraft consists of the propulsion module and the lander module, with the former tasked with delivering the lander module from launch injection to lunar orbit, and the lander module consisting of the Vikram lander and the Pragyan rover.

The integrated Chandrayaan-3 module with the Vikram lander plus Pragyan rover (top) and the propulsion module (bottom). (Source: Indian Space Resource Organization)

The science payload of the Vikram lander consists of the Radio Anatomy of Moon Bound Hypersensitive Ionosphere and Atmosphere (RAMBHA) instrument, the Chandra Surface Thermophysical Experiment (ChaSTE), the Instrument for Lunar Seismic Activity (ILSA), the Langmuir Probe (LP) and NASA’s Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA). The scientific payload of the Pragyan rover consists of the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) and the Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscope (LIBS).

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Missionary life for Vikram and Pragyan is expected to last one lunar day, or about 14 terrestrial days. Since the moon always shows one side to the earth and takes about 28 days to orbit the earth, a lunar day corresponds to 14 earth days.

While Chandrayaan-2 met an unfortunate fate, the Chandrayaan program’s first mission was Chandrayaan-1, which consisted of a lunar orbiter and Moon Impact Probe (MIP), and was launched on October 22, 2008 from the Satish Dhawan Space Center. The spacecraft successfully entered lunar orbit on November 8, 2008 and achieved final entry into lunar orbit on November 12, 2008.

The MIP was launched from the spacecraft on Nov 14 and crashed intentionally near Shackleton Crater at the Moon’s south pole just thirty minutes later. During this time, it continued to send back data confirming the existence of water ice in the lunar regolith. While the mission was expected to last about two years, the orbiter unexpectedly lost contact with ground control on August 28, 2009 for unknown reasons, but a NASA radar determined in 2016 that the spacecraft was still in orbit around the moon.

Despite the mission’s abrupt end, scientists determined that Chandrayaan-1 had achieved 95 percent of its primary mission objectives. This includes using NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) instrument to confirm the magma-ocean hypothesis about the moon and producing over 70,000 three-dimensional images of the moon’s surface.

What new discoveries will Chandrayaan-3, with its Vikram lander and Pragyan rover, make during its brief mission to our nearest neighbor in heaven? Only time will tell, and that’s why we’re working on the science!

As always, keep up the science and keep looking up!

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