After a journey from Earth to lunar orbit that took nearly six weeks, India will try to land on the moon’s surface. With Chandrayaan-2, the country hopes to become the fourth in the world to complete a lunar landing, after the Soviet, American and Chinese space programs.
Here’s what you need to know about the Chandrayaan-2 mission and how to follow it.
When is the landing and how can I watch it?
The landing is scheduled for between 4 and 5 p.m. Friday New York time. (In India, it will already be Saturday, between 1:30 and 2:30 a.m.)
Doordarshan, a public broadcasting network in India, will also provide live video of the landing.
What are the components of the Chandrayaan-2 mission?
The spacecraft consists of multiple pieces:
A lander named Vikram, after Vikram A. Sarabhai, the father of the Indian space program.
A six-wheeled rover named Pragyan, which means “wisdom” in Sanskrit.
On Monday, the lander carrying the rover detached from the orbiter.
The rover carries a couple of instruments to measure the composition of moon rocks and soil. The lander carries instruments to measure moonquakes, temperatures a couple of inches into the soil and charged particles from the sun in the extremely tenuous lunar atmosphere.
The lander and rover are expected to operate just a couple of weeks; they were not designed to survive the frigid darkness of night, which lasts two weeks.
The orbiter carries a suite of instruments, including cameras and spectrometers, and is designed to operate at least a year.
CreditIndian Space Research Organization/EPA, via Shutterstock
Why does India want to put a lander on the moon?
For people in India, the space program is a demonstration of their country’s emerging technological capabilities. As Narendra Modi, the country’s prime minister said on Twitter today:
Where will the Vikram lander touch down?
The Chandrayaan-2 lander and rover will explore a spot near the lunar South Pole, which is an intriguing region that no one has seen up close yet. Within the moon’s eternally dark and frigid craters, water ice is believed to have collected. If future moon explorers are able to collect enough ice, they could use it for lunar habitats and to make fuel for spacecraft traveling elsewhere in the solar system.
The 900-pound Vikram lander will be setting down on a high plain between two polar craters, Manzinus C and Simpelius N, about 375 miles from the South Pole. There is no ice there, and the landing area was chosen in part because it appears flat and smooth. But studying the terrain in this region might still offer hints at the amount of ice nearby.
Why is it difficult to land on the moon?
Most of space is empty. If something goes wrong with a spacecraft, it usually shuts itself down and waits for instructions from Earth. Landing is different.
By design, moon landers are put on a collision course with their destinations; the trick is to make the collision gentle enough that it sets down in one piece. To do this, thrusters on the lander need to fire at the right times in the right directions for the desired length of time.
If something goes wrong during descent — the spacecraft’s computer crashes or a thruster malfunctions — there may not be time to recover.
The moon is more than 200,000 miles from Earth, which means any instructions from the engineers in India take more than one second to reach the spacecraft. Because of the delay, the landing is automated, with the spacecraft acting on its own. A video posted by ISRO shows how the landing is intended to occur.
In addition to slowing down as it descends, the lander also has to avoid any craters and boulders so that it does not tip over. The variety of things that could go wrong have led K. Sivan, the director of India’s space program, to call the landing phase “15 minutes of terror.”
The moon is littered with the remains of spacecraft that have tried and failed to land in one piece. Two American spacecraft, from the robotic Surveyor series that helped blaze the trail for Apollo, crashed in the 1960s. Several probes from the Soviet Luna program also impacted the moon. Beresheet, a spacecraft built by an Israeli nonprofit, crashed in April after a command was incorrectly sent as it landed.
If India sticks the landing on its first try, it will highlight the technological accomplishment of the mission.
What does Chandrayaan mean?
It is Hindi for “moon vehicle.”
What else has India done in space?
As the 2 in Chandrayaan-2 indicates, India has already sent one spacecraft to the moon. The orbiter Chandrayaan-1, launched in 2008, operated for 10 months and helped confirm the presence of water ice in the lunar craters.
India also launched an orbiter to Mars in 2013 that continues to orbit the red planet, and in 2017, an Indian rocket deployed 104 satellites, a record for a single launch.
India’s space missions have cost a fraction of those from bigger space agencies like NASA and the European Space Agency, but they have also generally carried simpler payloads. That is also true of Chandrayaan-2, which cost less than $150 million.
In March, India also demonstrated a less friendly space capability, an antisatellite test that scattered hundreds of pieces of debris. China, the United States and Russia have developed similar weapons.
What are India’s other planned missions?
ISRO’s plans include additional robotic missions to Venus, Mars, the moon and the sun.
India is also working on flying its astronauts to Earth orbit on Gaganyaan, or “orbital vehicle.” A crewless test is scheduled for December of next year; the first flight with people aboard is scheduled for 2022.
What other visitors has the moon had recently?
China landed Chang’e-4, a robotic lander, on the far side of the moon in January. The unsuccessful landing attempt by Israel’s Beresheet occurred in April.
The Trump administration is aiming for the United States to return astronauts to the moon in 2024, and NASA is also paying private companies to carry scientific payloads to the lunar surface, but those missions will not launch until 2021.