Only three nations – the US, China, and Soviet Union – have ever touched down on Earth’s satellite, and none have successfully made it to the south pole.
By Tom Acres, technology reporter
Thursday 24 August 2023 06:19, UK
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Besides a Cricket World Cup final win over Pakistan, it’s difficult to envisage anything generating more excitement in India than its historic moon mission.
In a landmark achievement for not just the country’s space programme, but humanity’s efforts to explore the cosmos, Chandrayaan-3 landed on the lunar south pole.
We live-blogged it as it happened – you can re-live the experience here
Here’s everything you need to know about the mission:
Why does landing on the south pole matter?
Only three nations – the US, China, and Soviet Union – have ever touched down on Earth’s satellite, though none have successfully made it to the south pole.
The difficulty of doing so was made clear over the weekend when a Russian craft crashed during its own bid, meaning the door remained open for India to set a new bar for moon exploration.
It’s thought the south pole’s shadowed craters contain water ice that could support a future base on the moon, allowing astronauts and scientists to work there for extended periods.
Space agencies including NASA have detected frozen water in the moon’s south pole craters before, but no country had ever actually ventured into the region.
If water ice is really there, it could be used for fuel, oxygen, and drinking water; and provide insight into past lunar volcanoes and the origins of our own oceans.
Why had nobody done it before?
As the failed Russian mission proved, it’s extremely difficult.
India knows only too well, with Chandrayaan-3’s forerunner (you guessed it, Chandrayaan-2) having crashed near its proposed landing site in 2019.
It managed to deploy an orbiter, but the lander and rover meant to actually reach the surface were destroyed.
The south pole is a long way from the region of the moon targeted by most previous missions, including the crewed Apollo landings from decades gone by.
One of the challenges facing space agencies is the moon’s south pole has very rough terrain, with deep trenches and plenty of craters.
India’s experts believed adjustments they’d made to Chandrayaan-3, like sturdier legs, stood it in good stead. And they were right.
Prayers were held for the mission’s success, schools put on telecasts, and people held watch parties.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had drummed up the hype, hailing the mission as “a new chapter in India’s space odyssey” that would elevate “the dreams and ambitions of every Indian”.
Chandrayaan-3’s mission was short and sweet.
“We have a soft landing on the moon,” the prime minister was told by engineers at India’s Space Research Organisation, where there were scenes of delirious celebration
Narendra Modi said India “will look into a human flight mission as well for the future”.
“India is showing and proving that the sky is not the limit”, he added.
The excitement doesn’t end at the landing.
After a few hours, the spacecraft’s lander deploys a rover that will spend two weeks gathering rock samples, images, and data.
During the fortnight, it will run a series of experiments to determine the mineral composition of the lunar surface.
Between them, the lander and rover are carrying a number of instruments to carry out the required measurements.
The moon rover, which weighs 26kg, is named Pragyaan, which is the Sanskrit word for wisdom.
Dr Ian Whittaker, a space physics expert at Nottingham Trent University, said: “The successful landing means the rover and station should provide us with a more accurate determination of lunar crust composition.
“Particularly around the lunar south pole which is a suggested location for a lunar base due to the ability to have constant sunlight for power. The instruments onboard the rover will be useful for if we want to build structures out of local material.”
As has been stressed repeatedly today, a focus for the rover will be examining the presence of water ice in the craters dotted around the moon’s south pole.
We know from previous missions that it’s there, but this is the first opportunity to get up close.
It could be a source of fuel, oxygen and drinking water, laying the groundwork for a base on the moon – potentially as a staging post for deeper space exploration.
Sky News’ science and technology editor Tom Clarke said there could be a billion years’ worth of water stored in craters on the moon – and this might also give us lots of insight into the evolution of the solar system.
Other countries who tried
It’s safe to say Russia will likely be very jealous, having seemed determined to beat India to the punch.
In the US, NASA’s chief Bill Nelson has said he’s “looking forward” to what could be learned.
After the successful landing, he said the US and NASA were “glad to be your partner on this mission”.
The American agency is planning its own quest to the surface of the moon’s south pole, as is China, having only explored using probes.
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NASA has co-ordinated with India before, sending equipment to the moon on board Chandrayaan-1 in 2009 which detected water.
That same year, one of its own probes also found water ice below the south pole’s surface.
In the years ahead, private companies will also likely try their hand at exploring the moon – and Mr Modi hopes the successful landing will now drive more Indian firms to invest in space.