India Spacecraft Located, Condition Unknown

Sep 8, 2019
Originally published on September 10, 2019 12:13 am

They found it!

More than 36 hours after India lost contact with an unmanned spacecraft it was trying to land near the moon's South Pole, scientists appear to have located it on the moon's surface. But there's no word on what condition it's in.

The head of India's space agency, K. Sivan, told the Indian news agency ANI that the orbiter which released the Vikram lander on its descent toward the moon has now captured a thermal image of the craft on the lunar surface. He said the agency is trying to establish contact with it.

With this mission, India hoped to become the fourth country to land on the moon, after the United States, the former Soviet Union and China – and the first to land at the moon's unexplored South Pole.

But hopes were dashed just after 2 a.m. Saturday local time, when the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) lost contact with its Vikram lander about 2.1 kilometers (about 1.3 miles) above the lunar surface. It had successfully broken off from its orbiter, and was on its way toward the moon, when the signal was lost.

At the time, it was unclear whether it had crash-landed on the moon, like an Israeli probe had back in April, or if it had simply floated away.

On Sunday, Sivan told ANI the lander had indeed reached the moon. But he said it was "premature to say anything" about what condition it was in, and whether it was still functional.

The mission was supposed to spend several weeks on the lunar surface. The lander was carrying a robotic rover, which the agency planned to use to measure and take photos of ice deposits around the moon's South Pole. That ice was spotted from above by a previous Indian moon mission, Chandrayaan-1, a decade ago. The current mission, Chandrayaan-2, is its sequel. (Chandrayaan means 'moon craft' in Sanskrit.)

This is also believed to be the first Indian space mission headed entirely by women.

Indians took to social media Sunday to declare the moon landing a success, even as the space agency reserved judgement.

"India is the 4th Nation to land on Moon and 1st Nation to land on Lunar Southpole.This is the best example of Hardwork and dedication always pays off," one person tweeted.

Sunday's online celebrations contrasted with a more somber mood a day earlier at ISRO headquarters in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had traveled there, and was watching from a glass mezzanine above the control room, when scientists lost contact with the Vikram lander. Video circulated on Twitter of Modi hugging the ISRO chief Sivan, who was in tears.

"We came very close, but we need to cover more ground in the times to come," Modi told the disappointed scientists. "Every Indian is filled with the spirit of pride as well as confidence. We are proud of our space program and scientists."

Modi has hailed India's space program as a symbol of the country's aspirations to be a scientific and economic power. With 1.3 billion people, India is expected to soon overtake China as the world's most populous country.

India has also earned a reputation for exploring space on the cheap. The total cost of this Chandrayaan-2 mission is expected to be about $140 million – less than what it cost Hollywood to make the space exploration movie Interstellar.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

India is doing its best to become the fourth country to land on the moon. But over the weekend, it lost contact with a spacecraft that was supposed to touch down on the lunar surface. But then suddenly, the spacecraft reappeared. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from Mumbai.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: It was an emotional weekend for scientists at India's space agency. Mission Control, in the southern city of Bengaluru, was buzzing as the lander descended toward the moon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MISSION CONTROL OFFICER #1: Roughly 4.43 kilometers away from the landing site. So all going well.

FRAYER: But more than a mile above the lunar surface, the signal dropped.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MISSION CONTROL OFFICER #2: Stand by. Negative. No signal from...

FRAYER: The lander was lost. The mission had failed. Or so everyone thought. Prime Minister Narendra Modi consoled tearful scientists at Mission Control.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: The learnings from today will make us stronger and better.

FRAYER: Then about 36 hours later, the orbiter that had released the lander managed to take a thermal image of it on the moon. It got there, but in what condition, nobody knows.

CHAITANYA GIRI: Yeah. It's quite exciting. It's a nail-biter of a mission, and everybody's hoping and praying that the lander is in good health.

FRAYER: Astrochemist Chaitanya Giri says if scientists can regain contact with the lander and if it's still functional - and those are big ifs - it could theoretically continue its mission. It was supposed to release a rover to take photos and measurements of ice deposits at the lunar South Pole. It's unclear whether any of that will be possible, but for now, Indians are celebrating how their lander was once lost and is now found.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.