India's Chandrayaan-3 successfully lands on lunar south pole

The historic Chandrayaan-3 mission could pave the way for human habitats on the Moon.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of Chandrayaan-3 on the Moon.
An artist's impression of Chandrayaan-3 on the Moon.

ISRO / Twitter 

The Chandrayaan-3 mission's Vikram lander has successfully touched down on the lunar south pole, making India the first nation to land a spacecraft on the rocky region of the Moon.

The soft landing occurred at 18:03 IST (08:33 ET). It also means India is the fourth nation to ever land on the lunar surface, after the former Soviet Union, the US, and China.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) designed Chandrayaan-3 to search for vast deposits of ice water on the lunar surface, which could one day be utilized to make sustainable human habitats on the Moon.

India's Chandrayaan-3 mission makes history

The world's leading space agencies, including NASA, Roscosmos, and China's space administration, have set their sights on the lunar south pole as scientists believe there are large amounts of water ice hidden beneath lunar soil and inside shadowed craters in the region.

India has made a very strong case for joining their ranks by performing the first successful landing on this coveted region of the lunar surface, which is tricky to land on due to its rough terrain and the orbital trajectory required.

Prior to Chandrayaan-3, Japan, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates all tried and failed to land on the lunar south pole.

India's Chandrayaan-3 successfully lands on lunar south pole
An artist's impression of the Pragyan rover.

India also failed on its previous attempt, the Chandrayaan-2 mission in 2019. However, ISRO has stated it collected a wealth of valuable data during that mission that made the Chandrayaan-3 landing possible.

Thanks to that data, ISRO improved the software for Chandrayaan-3, giving the Virkam lander a more adaptable algorithm. The space agency also made hardware changes, such as adding sturdier legs for the lander.

The Virkam soft landing comes just days after Russia's Luna-25 lander crashed on the Moon and failed to perform a soft landing on the lunar south pole. That failure, by the first nation to ever land a spacecraft on the Moon, highlighted the complexity of a lunar south pole landing.

Now that it has successfully landed on the lunar surface, the Chandrayaan-3 mission will aim to carry out one of its main scientific objectives, which is to seek out ice water that could support human habitats on the Moon in the future.

The Chandrayaan-3 mission's Vikram lander will soon roll out a solar-powered rover named Pragyan — Pragyan is Sanskrit for "wisdom", while Vikram means "valor". Both will spend roughly one lunar day, or about 14 Earth days, exploring the lunar south pole and beaming back data before their batteries run dry.

India's Chandrayaan-3 success for "all of humanity"

In an address just after the landing, India's Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi said "India's successful moon mission is not just India's alone", adding that it "belongs to all of humanity".

"It will help Moon missions by other countries in the future" and shows "we can all aspire for the Moon and beyond," he continued.

India reached the lunar south pole with a relatively low budget of 6 billion rupees ($75 million). As one online commenter pointed out before the soft landing took place, this is considerably less than the $165 million budget for the sci-fi movie Interstellar — that post prompted SpaceX CEO Elon Musk to tweet, "good for India!"

As a point of reference, NASA's Artemis I mission last year, which sent an uncrewed capsule around the Moon and back, cost approximately $4 billion.

The Chandrayaan-3 mission launched on July 14 aboard a Launch Vehicle Mark 3 (LM-3) rocket from a spaceport in Sriharikota in southern India. On August 5, the Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft entered lunar orbit and beamed images of the lunar surface back to Earth.

From that elliptical orbit around the moon, the spacecraft performed several maneuvers taking it roughly 93 miles (150 kilometers) above the lunar surface.

On August 17, Vikram and Pragyan separated from the Chandrayaan-3 propulsion module, which will stay in orbit around the Moon to study Earth from space. The Vikram-Pragyan duo then went on to perform a pair of brake maneuvers to get closer to the lunar surface.

Earlier this week, the robotic duo also established contact with the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter, which has been flying around the Moon since 2019. That orbit will serve as the communication link with Earth for the duration of the Chandrayaan-3 mission.

In the final 15 minutes of its powered descent today, the Vikram lander performed a complex maneuver during the "fine braking phase". This maneuver slowed the lander and changed its position from a high-speed horizontal one to a vertical one to allow it to land — it was during this phase that ISRO lost the Chandrayaan-2 lander.

Roughly two hours after the soft landing took place, ISRO shared four images via Twitter of the lunar surface taken during the lander's descent. The images were captured by its Lander Horizontal Velocity Camera.

In the same post, it noted that "the communication link is established between the Ch-3 Lander and MOX-ISTRAC, Bengaluru."

India has now joined a prestigious group of spacefaring nations, and it's only really just the beginning for the Chandrayaan-3 mission, as well as for India's space aspirations.

During his address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that India will now "look into a human flight mission as well for the future". 

"India is showing and proving that the sky is not the limit", he added.

This was a live article and it was updated as new information emerged. You can watch the live Chandrayaan-3 webcast, as it happened, below.

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