Indian lander goes silent as it approaches lunar south pole

By Brooks Hays & Danielle Haynes

Sept. 6 (UPI) -- India's attempt to become the first nation to put a spacecraft on the south pole of the moon is on hold. The country's lunar lander Vikram stopped relaying signals just moments before it was scheduled to touch down on the lunar surface.

The lander performed a series of breaking maneuvers on Friday, first so-called rough breaking, followed by fine breaking. The touchdown was expected sometime around 4:30 p.m. EDT.


On live broadcasts of the landing attempt, officials with the country's space agency, the Indian Space Research Organization, looked on with concern. Silence filled mission control.

ISRO Chairman K. Sivan said the agency needed to analyze data to determine what happened to the lander prior to touchdown.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on hand at mission control.

"Let's hope for the best," he told the scientists gathered there.

If Vikram's soft landing went as planned, India would be just the fourth country -- after the United States, Russia and China -- to put a spacecraft on the moon's surface.

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The landing attempt was streamed live online by ISRO and National Geographic.


India's Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle launched Chandrayaan-2 in July. The probe spent a few weeks circling Earth before slinging itself into space in early August. The spacecraft was captured into lunar orbit by the moon's gravity on August 20.

The mission's lander is named for Vikram Sarabhai, considered the father of India's space agency and an important figure in the development modern science, physical research and atomic energy. Sarabhai died in a plane crash in 1966.

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If Vikram arrived safely on the moon's south pole, the lander will release Pragyan, the mission's rover.

Given that India's space agency has never completed such an ambitious feat, its second moon mission was planned mostly as a proof-of-technology mission. But the trio of spacecrafts are outfitted with instruments to perform some basic science. The lander and rover will help scientists study the south polar region's topography, mineralogy and surface chemical composition.

Observations from lunar orbiters have previously revealed traces of ammonia, hydrogen, methane, mercury and silver among the layer of dust and rubble found on the surface of the moon's south pole. As well, evidence suggests the pole's craters hold more than 100 million tons of water. The region could provide natural resources for a permanent human base on the moon, as well as prove useful to interplanetary travel.


NASA and other agencies are considering developing the moon as an outpost from which to launch future deep space missions. NASA has plans to send astronauts to the lunar south pole by 2024.

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