Space is hard.
That simple sentiment, bursting with painful verisimilitude, was the order of the day when the Indian Space Research Organisation’s attempted, historic soft landing of its uncrewed contraption near the moon’s south pole went awry. Things were initially looking good for the Vikram lander – and its internalised exploratory rover, Pragyan – for some time, before the descent went off course during its final moments. Due to land on the lunar surface around a month after it was launched into space, technicians instead lost contact with it seconds before it was supposed to touch down in the dusty, unexplored regolith.
The antagonists behind the failed landing remain under investigation, and as of now remain inconclusive. The lander itself may not be totally lost; spotted from orbit, it appears to have remained in one piece. It has tipped onto its side, though, and attempts to communicate with it have so far been unsuccessful.
It certainly seems like a time to mourn the loss of a nearly historic mission to the moon. As some have pointed out, though, this endavour is not what you would call a failure by anyone’s standards.
The Chandrayaan-2 mission, like its Chandrayaan-1 predecessor, managed to deploy its orbiter without incident before the apparently doomed landing attempt took place. As noted by Emily Lakdawalla of the The Planetary Society, the orbiter – an eye up in the moon’s airless sky – will keep watch over our world’s sole natural satellite for an entire year.
If the orbiter was lost too, then sure, this mission would be a devastating, but not unforeseeable, failure. Space is hard. But the ingenuity of India’s scientists and engineers means that ISRO will now be able to conduct a myriad of phenomenal, cutting-edge lunar research regardless of whether or not they can salvage Vikram.
The orbiter, connected with the Indian Deep Space Network – a collection of antennas and relays to support its interplanetary missions – is absolutely packed with top-notch tech. Here’s a taste of what that little orbiter will be able to accomplish as it spins around the moon in glorious solitude.
– Its Terrain Mapping Camera 2, or TMC 2, will be able to develop a detailed cartography of the lunar surface to a fairly decent resolution. This will help create 3D maps of the surface of the moon’s most massive scar, full of elusive, oft-hidden topographies and locked up supplies of water ice.
– This will be aided by a radar system, one that will be capable of peering into regions of the moon that are perpetually in shadow. The radar will bounce off and warp inside the surface-level formations, and scientists will be able to use these perturbations to calculate the various thicknesses of said formations, including that all-important water ice.
– The devil is in the details, which is why the infrared spectrometer instrument will come in handy. Using the characteristics of the light being emitted by the rocks lingering at the surface, this piece of kit will be able to identify a range of mineral species, thereby improving our understanding of the moon’s geology and how its south polar region varies from, say, the near side regions sampled by the Apollo missions around half a century earlier.
– It’s not all about the moon. The orbiter’s X-ray Monitor will look at the fury being emitted by the Sun and its enigmatic, wisp-like corona, in effect allowing scientists to see how much solar radiation makes it to the moon, and how it changes along its journey.
Originally designed to last a year, the orbiters flawless insertion into a stable lunar ballet is now reportedly allowing it to function for almost seven years. Short of a rogue cometary or asteroidal fragment slamming into the orbiter, then, these instruments – and several others – will keep working, providing scientists all over the world with game-changing data until potentially sometime in 2026.
The fact that ISRO managed to place it there is an enormously laudable feat, and act of technical wizardry so immediately rewarding that it almost doesn’t matter that Vikram toppled over and went silent. It is, of course, hugely disappointing that Vikram looks to be unrecoverable. The science it and its Pragyan rover could have carried out in one of the geologically strangest and increasingly strategic parts of the Moon would have been a thrill to see. But, you know, space is hard.
Don’t let that crash-landing get you down, though; the moon still has a brand-new robotic friend, one that will, in time, reveal more of its secrets than anyone can possibly imagine.