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EFSAS Commentary

Chandrayaan-3’s Moon landing: a remarkable achievement that showcases India’s spirit, capabilities and resilience


In a historic moment that drew cheers from the millions of watchers of its live telecast around the country, India on 23 August became the first nation to successfully land a spacecraft near the south pole of the Moon. Tom Acres, technology reporter of Sky News, described the event as a landmark achievement for not just India’s space programme, but also humanity’s efforts to explore the cosmos. Even though the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of the United States (US) did successfully put humans on the Moon during the Apollo Programme more than 50 years ago, the touchdown of India’s robotic spacecraft nevertheless marks a massive achievement and pays tribute to the economic, scientific and technological progress that India has made in the just 75 years since it was left a broken, drained, impoverished and struggling nation by its colonial British rulers. The landing also demonstrated India’s continued perseverance and tenacity in achieving difficult missions. Such was the scale of the feat in the eyes of most South Asians that even the Pakistani daily Dawn commented on how Chandrayaan-3 had captivated public attention since its launch nearly six weeks ago, and noted that “India is steadily matching the achievements of established spacefaring nations”.

Chandrayaan-3 (Moon craft-3) launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota Range in southern India on 14 July on a mission to demonstrate new technologies and achieve India’s first soft landing on another celestial body. The spacecraft arrived in lunar orbit on 5 August, and on 17 August the lander module separated from the propulsion module and soon began its descent to the surface of the Moon. On 23 August, after a nail-biting wait, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) confirmed that Chandrayaan-3’s lander had successfully touched down on the Moon’s southern polar region, as planned. Chandrayaan-3 took much longer to reach the Moon than the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 70s as India used rockets that were much less powerful than the US did back then. Instead, Chandrayaan-3 orbited the Earth several times to gain speed before embarking on its month-long lunar trajectory. Mission control erupted in celebration as it was announced that the lander module had landed “safely and softly”.

More celebrations followed when Pragyan — Wisdom in Sanskrit — rolled out of the lander on 24 August. During its mission on the surface of the Moon, which will last for one lunar day (14 days on Earth), the rover will carry out a number of scientific experiments. It will gather rock samples, images, and data, and will run a series of experiments to determine the mineral composition of the lunar surface. The six-wheeled lander and rover module of Chandrayaan-3 is configured with payloads that will provide data to the scientific community on the properties of lunar soil and rocks, including chemical and elemental compositions.

Only three nations – the US, China, and the erstwhile Soviet Union (USSR) – have ever touched down on the Moon, but no country had thus far successfully made it to the south pole. As Tom Acres pointed out, the south pole is a long way from the region of the Moon targeted by most previous missions, including the crewed Apollo landings. The south pole has very rough terrain, with deep trenches and plenty of craters, making landing on it a challenging task. T.V. Padma, writing in the Nature journal, explained the testing conditions Chandrayaan-3 overcame by recalling that India’s 2019 Chandrayaan-2 mission had succeeded in launching an orbiter with eight functioning instruments, but the lander carrying the Moon rover crashed into the lunar surface in the final moments of landing. She wrote, “ISRO learnt from that failure and made several design changes to the lander-rover portion of the mission. These include a new laser sensor to measure the real-time velocity of the spacecraft relative to the Moon, algorithms to handle unanticipated deviations in propulsion or trajectory and better judge the landing terrain, bigger and more solar panels, more fuel, a heavier lander equipped with four sturdier legs to handle a faster landing velocity. The craft also targeted a larger landing area that was 4 kilometres by 2.4 kilometres, compared with a 0.5 km by 0.5 km region for the previous mission”.

Marc Norman, planetary geochemist at the Australian National University in Canberra, underlined that landing at the Moon’s south pole is difficult because it involves positioning the spacecraft at a different angle from previous landings. In particular, it requires putting the spacecraft into a polar orbit that is at right angles to the Moon’s orbit. Norman said, “This requires additional energy to move the spacecraft into an ‘unnatural’ orbit, which introduces uncertainties on critical aspects such as velocity and location of the spacecraft”. He added that lack of detailed data on the region’s gravity and surface characteristics compounded the problem. He elaborated by saying that “For example, if the spacecraft lands in a crater, on a slope, or the leg of the lander catches on a boulder, the mission could be compromised”.

Geologist Saumitra Mukherjee of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, whose team analysed images sent by India’s first lunar mission Chandrayaan-1 in 2008, pointed out that Moon quakes in the landing area added to the complexity. Torin Clark, an aerospace engineer at University of Colorado Boulder, believes that poor lighting from the Sun was another challenge. He said, “Some areas are completely in the dark, others are in the light, but with extreme sun angles, essentially blocking out any terrain features. This is in contrast to the Apollo landings, where the landing sites and timing were specifically chosen to ensure quality lighting of the lunar terrain”.

The importance of landing at the Moon’s south pole lies in the fact that it is believed that the 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 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. 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”. ISRO said that “the lunar south pole is of special interest because parts of it remain permanently in shadow, raising the possibility of sampling Moon ice for the first time. Moreover, the large craters near the lunar south pole might contain clues to the composition of the early Solar System”.

The successful landing of Chandrayaan-3 sparked huge celebrations across India. Reactions to achievement were buoyant. Sreedhara Panicker Somanath, chairman of ISRO, announced it by exclaiming, “We have achieved soft landing on the Moon. India is on the Moon”. Somnath later told a press briefing that India would next attempt a manned lunar mission, and that the landing “gives confidence to configure missions to go to the Moon, Mars, Venus, maybe even asteroids”. Chandrayaan-3’s success comes about a week before ISRO’s next major mission — its first to study the Sun — which is scheduled to launch in the first week of September.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking by video link from South Africa where he is attending a BRICS summit, said that India was entering a historically auspicious moment. Modi said, “My dear family, when we see history being made in front of us, it makes our life blessed. This moment is the announcement of an advanced India. These moments are of invention and phenomenal growth. … We had taken a pledge on Earth and realized it on the Moon. This success belongs to all of humanity and it will help more missions by other countries in the future”.

India’s opposition parties joined the celebrations and extended congratulations. The President of India’s Congress Party and leader of the opposition Mallikarjun Kharge said that the success of Chandrayaan-3 was the “collective success of every Indian”. Kharge added, “We are deeply indebted to the remarkable hard work, unparalleled ingenuity and unflinching dedication of our scientists, space engineers, researchers and everyone involved in making this mission a triumph for India. Today, through the Chandrayaan-3, we have displayed our scientific prowess to the world”.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi sought to bring in a historical perspective when he wrote on social media that “Chandrayaan-3’s soft landing on the uncharted lunar South Pole is the result of decades of tremendous ingenuity and hard work by our scientific community. Since 1962, India’s space programme has continued to scale new heights and inspire generations of young dreamers”.

As Canada-based writer and journalist Anusuya Datta noted in spacenews.com, “ISRO’s history is characterized by resilience, innovation, and collaboration. Established in 1969, ISRO has maintained a robust remote sensing program since 1988, offering valuable Earth Observation data in various spatial, spectral and temporal resolutions through a range of instruments. Many do not know that its PAN cameras (aboard IRS-1C) were the highest-resolution civilian cameras in the world until the launch of U.S.-based DigitalGlobe’s Ikonos satellite in 1999. ISRO’s technological prowess garnered global attention in 2013 with the success of the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), also known as Mangalyaan. ISRO has launched 124 of its own spacecraft, including three to the Moon and one to Mars; and has facilitated the launch of 424 satellites from other countries. Its old workhorse PSLV is a prime choice for rideshare services, notable for deploying 104 satellites in a single launch in 2017, a world record until SpaceX’s Transporter-1 mission surpassed it in 2021. In 2018, ISRO completed its own navigation system, NavIC, positioning itself among the elite club of nations (U.S., Russia, China, the European Union, and partly Japan) with this capability. The Chandrayaan missions only signify the continuation of this legacy”.

International reactions were equally upbeat and encouraging. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson congratulated ISRO on the landing and said, “And congratulations to India on being the 4th country to successfully soft-land a spacecraft on the Moon. We’re glad to be your partner on this mission!” The US Department of State’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs said that Chandrayaan-3 success would “power” the future. It said on social media, “Your success will power the imagination and light the future of people around the world”. India has aligned itself with the US by signing an agreement on space exploration known as the Artemis Accords, a legal framework that governs activity in space. So far, nearly 30 countries have signed, allowing them to partner with the US on space missions and mandating that they adhere to a set of rules, such as publicly sharing scientific discoveries and creating “safety zones” where nations could work undisturbed on the lunar surface.

The director general of the European Space Agency (ESA), Josef Aschbacher, called the landing of Chandrayaan-3 an “incredible” event. “What a way to demonstrate new technologies and achieve India’s first soft landing on another celestial body”, he said, adding “Well done. I am thoroughly impressed”. Rolf Densing, Director of Operations at ESA’s operations centre in Darmstadt, Germany said, “Congratulations ISRO on this historic landing. ESA is proud to support the Chandrayaan-3 mission. Our ground stations are a core element of ESA’s support to its international partners, and I am pleased that with this activity, we are further strengthening ESA’s relationship with ISRO and with India. I look forward to supporting further pioneering ISRO missions, such as Aditya-L1, in the future”. ESA is providing deep space communication support to the Chandrayaan-3 mission.

Russia’s space agency Roskosmos joined in to hail India for the Moon landing. It said in a post on its Telegram channel: “Roskosmos congratulates Indian colleagues on the successful landing of the Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft. Exploration of the Moon is important for all mankind. In the future it may become a platform for deep space exploration”.

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa was among several international leaders who congratulated India on the historic Moon landing. “This for us, as the BRICS family, is a momentous occasion and we rejoice with you. We join you in the joy of this great achievement”, he said. Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his “heartfelt congratulations” to India for an “impressive” achievement. He said that “This is a big step forward in space exploration and, of course, a testament to the impressive progress made by India in the field of science and technology”. Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum said, “India continues to make history”.

The implications of India’s impressive achievement with Chandrayaan-3 are wide. Dr. Ian Whittaker described it thus: “It is amazing to see that India have managed a soft lunar landing on only their second attempt. It indicates great things for future missions in the Chandrayaan series, and means they become a bigger player on cooperative missions in the future. Indian schoolchildren will have all watched the landing in schools. It is really seeing science in action and will inspire a new generation of space scientists and researchers”.

Former NASA official Mike Gold, who is currently the Chief Growth Officer of Redwire Space, believes that Chandrayaan-3’s success is a victory of Indian innovation, human capital and the capabilities that will take India further. He noted that what made the success of Chandrayaan-3 amazing was the “relatively little amount of resources that India has used”. Gold went on to say that “This mission will gather invaluable data to help drive our understanding of the Moon, our ability to utilise resources and ultimately where we’re going to establish settlements on the Moon”. 

Anusuya Datta feels that Chandrayaan-3’s success holds potential significance for India’s aspirations of establishing a sustained human presence on the Moon. Under the Artemis Accords, ISRO can lay claim to the landing area for mining rights. Further, a successful Chandrayaan-3 mission will catalyze innovative scientific research, facilitating groundbreaking experiments that contribute to lunar understanding, including its composition, geology, and resource potential. She opined that at the heart of India’s space journey lay a pivotal lesson in self-reliance. ISRO serves as a living testament to the remarkable potential of Indian scientists in conquering challenges. Despite bureaucratic entanglements, political intricacies, and limited resources, ISRO has shattered stereotypes, emerging as a worthy rival to the elite space club.

Kavya Karampuri, a mission systems engineer at Bengaluru-based KaleidEO that specializes in Earth-observation-based space data analytics, is of the view that India’s success will instill confidence in the technological competence of India’s space industry. It would attract global investments in the Indian private space sector, foster international collaboration, and innovation across universities, laboratories, start-ups, and research communities in India.

India’s achievement on the Moon comes at a time when its stock on earth is also rising rapidly. Nuclear-armed India became the world’s fifth-largest economy last year, and as The Guardian noted, Modi’s nationalist government is eager to showcase the country’s rising standing as a technology and space powerhouse. It added, “A successful Moon mission dovetails with Modi’s image of an ascendant India asserting its place among the global elite and would help bolster his popularity ahead of a crucial general election next year”.

The real significance of India’s lunar achievement lies in the fact that when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon in July 1969, poverty-stricken India was struggling with the consequences of a cruel and exploitative colonial past and ISRO had not even been established; yet, just 50-odd years later, the indomitable spirit, the resilience, and the quest for scientific knowledge and technological prowess of the Indian people has got them where very few have dared venture – as far away as the Moon.