Why India Wants to Land a Rover on the Moon's South Pole
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is trying to make history and secure India's place as a space superpower by landing a rover on the Moon's south pole, near where NASA's Artemis missions will eventually land. They took one significant step toward that goal on July 22nd, 2019 with the successful launch of the Chandrayaan-2 mission. What is India's space program hoping to accomplish with this mission and how long did it take them to reach this point?
The Chandrayaan Missions
This isn't the first time that the ISRO has gone to the moon. Chandrayann-1 launched in 2008 from the Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota, India and reached lunar orbit on November 8th. This probe, whose name means 'moon craft' in ancient Sanskrit, spent nearly a year orbiting the Moon, mapping the satellite's surface, before ISRO lost contact with it.
Chandrayaan-1's mission wasn't just a proof of concept for India's space program. The probe also discovered evidence of water ice on the Moon, spotting signs of a hydrogen-oxygen chemical bond that indicates the presence of water. This signature was stronger at the poles than around the Moon's equator, which brings us to Chandrayaan-2 and it's anticipated polar landing location.
1.5 Years of Delays
Chandrayaan-2 successfully launched on July 22nd, 2019, but it was was supposed to launch 3 years ago, with India trying to keep up with the modern space race that has taken the world by storm. The ISRO was working with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, at the time. Roscosmos was supposed to supply ISRO with their lunar lander, but when they failed to deliver, ISRO decided to go it alone. It took them three years to design and build their own lunar lander, but their success proves that India may be ready to become a space superpower.
Traveling the Long Way
When the Apollo missions traveled to the moon, they flew straight there which only took four days. Chandrayaan-2 will take nearly 7 weeks to make the same journey, but that's because the Indian spacecraft is taking a long way around. The spacecraft will make multiple orbits of Earth, each one slightly further away than the last, until it's far enough from home to be captured by the Moon's gravity and drawn in. From there, it will make successive orbits of the satellite until it's close enough to dispatch the Vikram lander.
The 4th Nation to Land
India is shooting for the moon and hoping to become the fourth nation to land successfully on the lunar surface, after the U.S, Russia, and China. Israel attempted to take that title earlier this year, only to have their Beresheet Probe crash into the Moon.
This landing isn't going to be an easy one though. Vikram is going to be landing on the dark side of the moon, out of contact with mission control, just before lunar sunrise sometime in early September. The entire mission will only last one lunar day — equivalent to two weeks on Earth — because neither the lander nor the rover is designed to survive the long, cold lunar night.
The Future of the ISRO
Vikram’s landing is tentatively scheduled for September 7th, 2019, so we still have more than a month to wait while Chandrayaan-2 carries out its delicate interstellar dance between the Earth and the Moon. We, along with everyone at the ISRO, will be waiting with breathless anticipation to see whether India will become the 4th country to successfully land on the moon — and what information the lander and rover might send back. Stay tuned — we'll update this piece in September once Vikram touches down, one way or another.