India sends Chandrayaan 2 probe toward the moon’s south pole for historic landing

Chandrayaan 2 launch
India’s GSLV Mk III rocket lifts off, sending the Chandrayaan 2 probe on a trip to the moon. (ISRO Photo)

India began a slow but steady space odyssey to the moon’s south polar region today with the launch of its Chandrayaan 2 mission.

The lunar landing, set for Sept. 6-7, would make India the fourth nation to set a probe safely down on the moon’s surface, after Russia, the United States and China.

If all goes according to plan, the mission’s Vikram lander and Pragyan rover would gather the first on-the-ground scientific data from a region that NASA is targeting for a crewed landing in 2024.

Today’s liftoff from the Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota Space Center, on India’s southeast coast, was hailed by mission leaders at the Indian Space Research Organization.

“It is the beginning of a historical journey of India toward the moon, and to land at a place near the south pole to carry out scientific experiments, to explore the unexplored,” said ISRO Chairman Kailasavadivoo Sivan.

In his congratulatory message to the team, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi noted that the launch was originally scheduled for last week but had to be postponed due to a technical problem with a helium tank on the three-stage GSLV Mk III rocket.

“The bigger the challenge, the intention gets equally big,” Modi said in remarks quoted by The Times of India. “I am told despite a delay of a week, the date of Chandrayaan 2 reaching the moon will remain the same.”

The mission follows up on the first Chandrayaan mission, which was launched in 2008 and conducted observations from lunar orbit for nearly 10 months.

Today’s launch put the Chandrayaan 2 payload into a highly elliptical orbit, ranging as far as 28,000 miles from Earth. Over the next few weeks, the spacecraft will execute a series of maneuvers to raise its altitude and shift to lunar orbit.

The strategy is similar to that used by Israel’s Beresheet lander, which successfully went into lunar orbit in April but crash-landed on the moon a week later.

Assuming that Chandrayaan 2 sticks to its planned trajectory, the spacecraft will send its lander-rover piggyback payload to a highland plain between two craters, Manzinus C and Simpelius N, at a latitude of 70.9 degrees south.

Scientists say the moon’s south polar region holds the promise of water ice reserves and other potential resources for human settlement — which is why it’s the target of NASA’s Artemis moon program.

Chandrayaan 2’s orbiter carries eight scientific payloads, including cameras, spectrometers and a solar X-ray monitor. The Vikram lander has four payloads, including a laser retroreflector array provided by NASA. The Pragyan rover has an alpha particle X-ray spectrometer and a laser-induced breakdown spectroscope to study the elemental composition of the lunar surface.

Chandrayaan is the Sanskrit word for “Moon Craft.” Vikram is named after Vikram Sarabhai, who is widely regarded as the father of India’s space program. And Pragyan is Sanskrit for “Wisdom.”

The solar-powered lander and rover are scheduled to be on the job for up to 14 days, which is the length of a lunar day. Mission cost is said to be in the range of $140 million.

Looking further ahead, India is planning to start launching its own astronauts in 2022 and send a robotic probe to bring lunar samples back to Earth in the 2023-2024 time frame.

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