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Chandrayaan-3: India’s epic victory in the Lunar South Pole marathon and why does it matter?

Picture credits: KaviDesigns345/DepositPhotos

Chandrayaan-3, India’s most recent endeavour in its ambitious lunar mission, has achieved a historic touchdown on the moon’s surface. This achievement comes after the setback of its predecessor in 2019. 

The historic lunar mission made a soft landing on the Moon’s surface on Wednesday, thereby taking India to the elite club of nations that have landed on the moon, including the US, China, and Russia. What’s more interesting is that the latest mission came with a price tag of nearly $75 million, which is far lower than those of other countries, and a testament to the country’s frugal space engineering.

This was India’s second attempt to land a spacecraft on the moon and it has turned out to be successful in less than a week after Russia’s Luna-25 mission failed. 

India creates history! 

While India remains to be the fourth country to make a soft landing on the lunar surface, it is the first one to land a spacecraft on the lunar south pole, which is an unexplored area. The landing took place at the targeted time of 5:34 AM PT (6:04 PM IST) on Wednesday over a month after the spacecraft’s launch. Notably, the Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft was launched on July 14 through its “Launch Vehicle Mark-III” vehicle. 

The Chandrayaan-3 is expected to contribute significantly to the detailed understanding of the lunar atmosphere and set the groundwork for upcoming space exploration initiatives.

ISRO Chairman S. Somanath, addressed the audience in Bengaluru and stated, “Chandrayaan-3 is a result of the work done by thousands of scientists, engineers, our staff and industries and support teams across ISRO and other places, other institutions.”

Why this race to reach the moon’s south pole?

As mentioned above, Russia’s Luna-25 craft scheduled to land on the south pole this week failed as it spun out of control and crashed on Sunday. Besides this, both the US and China have planned missions to the south pole. 

Dating back to the 1960s, even before the initial Apollo landing, scientists had speculated the potential existence of water on the moon. However, the samples brought back by the Apollo missions for analysis in the late 1960s and early 1970s initially appeared to be devoid of water.

Later, in 2008, researchers from Brown University revisited these lunar samples using advanced technology and identified traces of hydrogen within minuscule beads of volcanic glass. Subsequently, in 2009, a NASA instrument on board ISRO’s Chandrayaan-1 probe detected the presence of water on the moon’s surface.

In the same year, another NASA probe that impacted the moon’s south pole uncovered water ice beneath the lunar surface. An earlier NASA mission, the 1998 Lunar Prospector, had also discovered indications that the highest concentration of water ice was situated within the shadowed craters of the moon’s south pole.

Scientists are interested in the ancient water ice because they could provide a record of lunar volcanoes, material that comets and asteroids delivered to Earth, and the origin of oceans. If water ice is found in sufficient quantities, it could serve as a potential source of drinking water for lunar exploration and aid in equipment cooling.

Furthermore, it can be processed to generate hydrogen for fuel and oxygen for breathing, thus supporting missions to Mars or lunar mining. 

Why is the Moon’s south pole tricky?

A challenge for space agencies is the rugged terrain found at the moon’s south pole, characterised by deep trenches and numerous craters. India’s experts believed that modifications made to Chandrayaan-3, such as strengthening its legs, proved to be effective, and they were right. 

Narendra Modi said India “will look into a human flight mission as well for the future. India is showing and proving that the sky is not the limit.” 

What’s next for India?

The excitement continues beyond the landing. A few hours of the landing, the lander of the spacecraft is said to release a rover, which will a fortnight to collecting rock samples, capturing images, and collecting data.

Throughout this two-week period, it will conduct a series of experiments to ascertain the mineral composition of the lunar surface. Collectively, both the lander and rover (named Pragyaan weighs 26kg) are equipped with several instruments essential for conducting these measurements. 

Dr Ian Whittaker, a space physics expert at Nottingham Trent University, said: “The successful landing means the rover and station should provide us with a more accurate determination of lunar crust composition. Particularly around the lunar south pole which is a suggested location for a lunar base due to the ability to have constant sunlight for power. The instruments onboard the rover will be useful for if we want to build structures out of local material.”

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