India has become the first nation to successfully land a craft on the South Pole of the Moon. We look at what happened—and more importantly, what it means.
Some quick background
We’ve already done a comprehensive Big Story on Chandrayaan 3—including the history of our lunar program. But here are some quick deets:
Chandrayaan 1: The name literally means ‘Moon Craft’ in Sanskrit. And the first mission aimed merely to crash-land a probe on the moon’s surface. The spacecraft launched on October 22, 2008 aboard the India-made Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle rocket. It reached the moon on November 8—and released its Moon Impact Probe on November 14. Notably, Chandrayaan 1 was the first to confirm the presence of water on the moon.
Chandrayaan 2: The logical next step was to land a rover on the moon—and that’s what we tried to do in 2019. At first, everything went to plan. The rocket delivered the module containing an orbiter, lander and rover into the Moon’s orbit. The orbiter was circling the moon as per schedule. But the attempt to deliver the lander Vikram on the surface went terribly wrong—and ISRO lost contact with it right before it reached the surface. And it crash-landed on to the Moon.
Chandrayaan 3: The third mission launched on Friday—and is expected to achieve lunar orbit by August 24. It is the similar to the previous mission but for some key differences:
- There is no orbiter—which made Chandrayaan 2 a partial success. It continues to send back valuable data that is critical for planning future exploration.
- The new version of the lander—Vikram—is 280 kilograms heavier—and is around the size of a small car. Much of the added weight is due to tweaks aimed at avoiding a repeat of the previous debacle—such as extra fuel, stronger legs etc.
- But it only has four engines instead of the five on its predecessor—to alleviate the added weight.
- The landing site is larger and more carefully mapped.
Key quote to note:
“Instead of a success-based design, ISRO has this time opted for a failure-based design,” said ISRO’s chairman S. Somanath during a July 6 press briefing. That is, for Chandrayaan-3, ISRO has focused on what can fail and how those failures can be prevented. “We looked at sensor failure, engine failure, algorithm failure, calculation failure,” Somanath said.
Ok, tell me about the landing!
There isn’t much to tell when things go right:) At exactly, the lander Vikram with a rover inside touched down on the lunar surface at 6:04 p.m. We’d show you the moment of landing but oddly the telecast decided to focus on the PM waving the flag instead—as you can see here. Then again this is the image tweeted out by Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah (It’s a mercy he isn’t bigger than the lander):
Visuals in general are terrible—and there’s a lot of fake footage out there. So we give you this photo that sums up how far ISRO has travelled. Here are scientists carrying a rocket on a bike in the 1960s.
Okay, now tell me why this is a big deal
We are only the fourth country to land on the moon—after the US, Soviet Union and China. And we are the first to land on the South Pole. But those stats don’t capture what a great accomplishment this is for the Indian space program. Let us explain.
First, we nailed it! Landing anything on the moon is risky business—and mostly ends in disaster. The first 11 attempts made by the Soviet Union failed. And improvements in tech knowledge haven’t improved the odds all that much. Only three of the eight missions the past decade have been successful. Most recently, Russia’s Luna 25 crashed and burned—trying to beat us to the South Pole.
Low budget, high performance: The entire mission cost a paltry $75 million. Now compare that price tag to Christopher Nolan’s flick ‘Interstellar’: $165 million. Want another comparison? Indigo’s order for 500 Airbus planes cost $55 billion. Also this: “Overall, NASA’s annual budget dwarfs that of its Indian counterpart. In 2023, the U.S. agency received $25.4 billion in funding, compared to the ISRO’s budget of about $1.6 billion.” So well done, ISRO!
Conquering South Pole: Previous rovers—including those of NASA—landed close to the lunar equator—and for a very good reason:
It is easier and safer to land near the equator. The terrain and temperature are more hospitable and conducive for a long and sustained operation of instruments. The surface here is even and smooth, very steep slopes are almost absent, and there are fewer hills or craters. Sunlight is present in abundance, at least on the side facing the earth, thus offering a regular supply of energy to solar-powered instruments.
OTOH, here’s what the South Pole looks like:
But we are now the first to land on the South Pole—which is a critical region for lunar exploration.
And why is the South Pole so important?
Two words—water and sun. And that matters to any future lunar program for two reasons.
One: Water will be necessary to sustain any plan we have to actually live on the Moon—an ambition both NASA and Jeff Bezos share. And turning the Moon into a base is critical for any further space exploration or settlement—as in Mars (paging Elon Musk!):
Water is, of course, essential for human life as we know it, and extracting moon water is astronomically simpler and cheaper than hauling the stuff over from Earth. So, reliably supplying a moon base with life-supporting liquid would be among the first steps in establishing any kind of lingering lunar presence.
Two: Another excellent use for the water: making rocket fuel—since water can “also be broken down to produce hydrogen for fuel and oxygen to breathe, supporting missions to Mars or lunar mining.” As one NASA scientist explains: “Ultimately, the moon will provide a proving ground to test our technologies and resources that will take us to Mars and beyond, including building a sustainable, reusable architecture.”
Three: The South Pole contains some of the rare places on the moon’s surface that are almost perpetually bathed in sunlight: “The massive lowland basin at the south pole does host some thin crests, peaks, and crater rims that see sunlight for as many as 200 lunar days at a time.” This means we will be able to harness solar power—and it strengthens the possibility of surviving on the Moon. A piece of good luck: on the South Pole, the dark craters filled with polar ice and eternally sunny spots are right next to each other.
Ok, so what’s next?
After Vikram safely landed on the surface, it released the 26 kg rover Pragyan. And here’s what they will do next:
The six-wheeled rover, which is carrying two instruments and moves very slowly, is expected to crawl on the surface for the next 14 days, conducting chemical and elemental analysis of lunar soil and rocks. The Lander Module, which will remain stationary, carries four instruments that will record chemical, thermal and seismic measurements of the Moon’s surface.
The vague language used by ISRO doesn’t tell us whether the two of them will be looking for water. But that is the aim of all such South Pole missions—to learn more about ice deposits inside the craters. As one expert says:
We do not know how deep the deposits are. We need rovers or landers to be there to do the in situ detections, to tell the ice layer thickness, their origins, their ages, and their more accurate abundance.
Snapping at our heels: Almost every other country—and Jeff Bezos—is heading for the South Pole. According to the Wall Street Journal:
China plans further missions to the moon, including to the lunar south pole, and NASA officials have described the country’s growing space program as NASA’s main competition. NASA also plans to have astronauts land near the lunar south pole as part of its multiyear exploration program, Artemis. Last year, the agency said it had identified 13 potential landing areas close to the region for its Artemis III mission.
The first of these is slated to land in November this year. That said, India recently signed a space exploration agreement to pool information with NASA—and any US effort is likely to benefit us, as well.
FYI: The US space agency plans to start mining the surface over the next decade—as does China. Lunar missions are no longer about just exploration.
The bottomline: Some experts call this lunar landing India’s “Sputnik moment”—similar to when the Soviet Union launched its first spacecraft—and became one of the great powers in space. India is now one of the great powers in space—outstripping even Russia, according to some analysts:
[T]he failure [of Luna 25] highlighted that India is set to outstrip Russia as a space power in the 21st century… With a potential race to the Moon in the offing, India can play a major role. As the US and Europe seek to legitimize its plans for long-term human activity on Earths’ nearest neighbor, Delhi will vie with Beijing to represent the global south in space—and that will shape the future of humanity beyond the Earth for decades to come.
Indian Express has more on what’s next for Pragyaan. Reuters and BBC News have more on why the South Pole matters—while Wall Street Journal (paywall) details the scramble to conquer it. Planetary.org has a good guide to water on the moon. Quartz has an excellent piece on how India could topple Russia as a great space power. Our older Big Story on Chandrayaan 3 has lots more context on India’s lunar program.