Chandrayaan-3: India launches historic mission in bid to become fourth nation on the Moon

Following its successful launch, the spacecraft embarks on a month-long trip to reach lunar orbit.  
Mrigakshi Dixit
Chandrayaan-3 rocket lit off from the spaceport Sriharikota.
Chandrayaan-3 rocket lit off from the spaceport in Sriharikota.


On Friday, July 14, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) successfully launched Chandrayaan-3, its third mission dedicated to lunar exploration.

A follow-on mission to Chandrayaan-2, the spacecraft took off on a Launch Vehicle Mark 3 (LM-3) rocket from the spaceport Sriharihota in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh at 2.35 pm IST (5:05 am ET, and 9:05 GMT). The LVM3 is India's biggest and heaviest launch vehicle, and this is the rocket’s fourth operational flight. 

This $75 million mission comprises a lander, propulsion module, and rover. The country hopes to accomplish what its predecessor Chandryaan-2 could not: a soft landing on the lunar surface. 

If the mission goes as planned, it will make India the fourth nation, after the US, Russia, and China, to perform a successful Moon landing.

Planned course of action for Chandrayaan-3

According to ground control, the lift-off was "normal" and the rocket successfully separated from its boosters shortly afterward. Following the successful launch, the spacecraft will embark on a month-long trip to reach lunar orbit. 

Just over 16 minutes into its trip, the rocket deployed the Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft at an altitude of roughly 111.2 miles (179 kilometers). You can watch the entire launch sequence as it happened in ISRO's official webcast, in the video below.

The three-stage LVM3 is India's largest rocket. Its first stage consists of two S200 solid motors, which are the largest solid-fuel boosters after NASA's SLS SRBs, the Space Shuttle's SRBs, and the Ariane 5 SRBs. The boosters fired for 130 seconds after lift-off, producing a thrust of approximately 804,400 lbf.

The Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft will now go on to orbit Earth five to six times in an elliptical cycle — with 105.6 miles (170 km) being the closest to Earth and 22, 680 miles (36,500 km) being the furthest.

During this period, the spacecraft will execute a sequence of maneuvers to elevate its orbit, enabling it to break free from Earth's gravitational pull and embark on a trajectory toward the Moon using a slingshot effect. When it nears the Moon, the spacecraft will be captured by its gravitational force.

From this point, it will require several days for the propulsion module and lander to enter lunar orbit. The optimal landing height is 62.1 miles (100 km) above the lunar surface. 

When the spacecraft reaches this position, it will slowly separate from the propulsion module and begin a powered descent for a soft landing.

The entire mission is projected to take 42 days, with the landing likely to take place on August 23. 

If all goes as planned, the lander will safely release the tiny 26-kilogram rover to roam on the lunar surface. It is anticipated that the duo will remain operational for approximately one lunar day, which is equivalent to 14 Earth days.

The rover and lander will collect scientific data on the lunar surface using a suite of over five science payloads.

Insights gained from Chandrayaan-2

Chandrayaan 3 is a follow-up mission to Chandrayaan 2, which launched in July 2019 with an orbiter, lander, and rover. 

Unfortunately, the lander-rover pair crashed while attempting to soft land on the Moon.

ISRO has drawn insights from that last lunar mission to ensure a successful soft landing on this occasion.

Sreedhara Panicker Somanath, chairman of the ISRO, mentioned in a press briefing that they have thoroughly reviewed the data from the last crash and conducted stimulation exercises to rectify the glitches. 

Numerous potential scenarios involving instrument failures, such as sensors, engines, algorithms, and computations, have been thoroughly assessed, and advanced solutions have been implemented for this mission.

The Chandrayaan-2 mission wasn't a complete failure. It was able to deploy an orbiter, which provided high-resolution photos of the Chandrayaan-3 landing site. The organization now has a better understanding of the boulders and craters that surround this location. 

In addition, the space agency has reduced the number of engines on the lander from five to four and modified its software. Before the final launch, all of the spacecraft's technical elements were rigorously tested.

Nevertheless, a soft landing on the Moon remains a tricky task due to the extremely rocky terrain at the lunar south pole.

India could be fourth country to perform soft Moon landing

A successful soft landing would make India the fourth country to accomplish this complicated feat, following the United States, Russia, and China.

Following the launch, all eyes will be on the Chandrayaan-3's safe and soft landing on the south pole, where no spacecraft has ever gone before. 

If all goes well, this mission will be the first in history to soft-land near the lunar south pole — putting India ahead of the world's space superpowers, in this respect. All soft landings to date have taken place in the equatorial area of the lunar surface.

Meanwhile, NASA is also gearing up to explore the Moon's polar south in the coming years. NASA's Artemis program is aiming for future astronaut landings near the south pole by 2025 or 2026. The US space agency also aims to establish a permanent astronaut presence on the Moon shortly after the lunar landings.

By 2024, it also aims to land a robotic rover near the south pole for a 100-day mission. The Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER would search the region for evidence of ice and other possible resources. 

This area is of particular significance because it may contain a reservoir of water that might be a valuable resource for future deep space missions as well as extended stays on the lunar surface.