India is about to launch its third lunar mission, aiming to be the first to land near its little-explored south pole.
The Chandrayaan-3 craft containing an orbiter, lander and rover will lift off from the Sriharikota space center at 2:35 PM (09:05 GMT) on Friday.
The lander will reach the moon on August 23-24, space officials said.
If successful, India will become only the fourth country to make a soft landing on the moon, after the US, the former Soviet Union and China.
Chandrayaan-3, India’s third lunar exploration program, is expected to build on the success of its previous lunar missions.
It comes 13 years after the country’s first lunar mission in 2008, which “conducted the first and most detailed search for water on the lunar surface and determined that the moon has a daytime atmosphere,” said Mylswamy Annadurai, Chandrayaan-1 project director. .
Chandrayaan-2 – which also included an orbiter, lander and rover – launched in July 2019, but was only partially successful. His orbiter continues to orbit and study the moon to this day, but the lander-rover failed to make a soft landing and crashed during landing. It was because of “a last minute brake system malfunction”, Mr Annadurai explained.
Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) chief Sreedhara Panicker Somanath has said that they have carefully studied the data from the latest crash and conducted simulation exercises to rectify the malfunctions.
Chandrayaan-3, which weighs 3,900 kg and costs 6.1 billion rupees ($75 million; £58 million), has “the same goals” as its predecessor: to ensure a soft landing on the lunar surface, he added.
The lander (named Vikram, after the founder of Isro) weighs about 1,500 kg and carries in its belly the 26 kg rover called Pragyaan, the Sanskrit word for wisdom.
After Friday’s launch, the craft will take about 15 to 20 days to enter lunar orbit. Scientists will then begin reducing the speed of the rocket in the coming weeks to bring it to a point that will allow a soft landing for Vikram.
If all goes according to plan, the six-wheeled rover will eject and roam around the rocks and craters on the planet’s surface, collecting crucial data and images that will be sent to Earth for analysis.
“The rover carries five instruments that will focus on finding the physical features of the moon’s surface, the atmosphere close to the surface, and tectonic activity to study what’s going on below the surface. I hope that we will find something new,” Mr Somanath told Mirror Now.
The moon’s south pole is still largely unexplored — the area that remains in shadow there is much larger than that of the moon’s north pole, meaning there’s a chance of water in areas that are permanently shadowed. Chandrayaan-1 was the first to discover water on the moon, near the south pole, in 2008.
“We have more scientific interest in this place because the equatorial region, which is safe to land, has already been reached and there is a lot of data for that,” Somanath said.
“If we want to make an important scientific discovery, we have to go to a new area, such as the South Pole, but there is a higher risk of landing.
“The Chandrayaan-2 orbiter has provided a lot of very high resolution images of where we want to land and that data has been well studied so that we know how many boulders and craters there are and we have broadened the domain of the landing for a better opportunity.”
The landing, Mr Annadurai said, should be “absolutely accurate” to coincide with the start of a Monday (one day on the moon equals 14 days on Earth), because the batteries of the lander and rover use sunlight need to be landed. can charge and function.
Mr Somanath says the data from the Chandrayaan-2 crash has been “collected and analysed” and that it helped to fix all the errors in the last mission.
“Over the past four years, the orbiter has provided a lot of very
high-resolution images of where we want to land and that data has been well studied. So we know how many boulders and craters there are,” Somanath said. , adding that they also increased the area where the landing should take place.
The moon mission, says Mr. Annadurai, was conceived in the early 2000s as an exciting project to attract talent at a time of India’s IT boom as most technology graduates wanted to join the software industry. industry.
“The success of Chandrayaan-1 helped with that. The space program became a matter of pride for India and it is now considered very prestigious to work for ISRO.”
But the larger purpose of India’s space program, says Annadurai, “encompasses science and technology and the future of humanity”.
India isn’t the only country to have its sights set on the moon – there’s growing global interest in the planet. And scientists say there’s still a lot to understand about a planet often described as a gateway to deep space.
“If we want to develop the moon as an outpost, a gateway to deep space, we need to do a lot more exploration to see what kind of habitat we could build there with the locally available material and how will we do it? bring supplies to our people there,” says Annadurai.
“So the ultimate goal of India’s probes is that one day when the moon – separated by 360,000 km of space – will become a vast continent from Earth, we will not be passive spectators, but will have an active, protected life in that continent. And we have to keep working towards that.”
And a successful Chandrayaan-3 will be an important step in that direction.