India just made spaceflight history in more ways than one. The Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft’s Vikram lander has successfully touched down on the Moon, marking the country’s first successful landing on the lunar surface. It’s just the fourth country to do so after the Soviet Union, US and China. More importantly, it’s the first country to land near the Moon’s south pole — a difficult target given the rough terrain, but important for attempts to find water ice. Other nations have only landed near the equator.
The landing comes four years after Chandrayaan-2’s Vikram lander effectively crashed. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) designed the follow-up with a “failure-based design” that includes more backup systems, a wider landing area and software updates.
Vikram will remain idle for hours to allow lunar dust to settle. Once the area is clear, the Pragyaan rover will deploy to take photos and collect scientific data. Combined, the lander and rover have five instruments meant to gauge the properties of the Moon’s atmosphere, surface and tectonic activity. ISRO timed the landing for the start of a lunar day (about 28 Earth days) to maximize the amount of solar power available for Vikram and Pragyaan.
Chandrayaan-3’s success is a matter of national pride for India. The country has been eager to become a major power in spaceflight, and hopes to launch a space station around 2030. It can now claim to be one of just a handful of countries that have ever reached an extraterrestrial surface. The info gathered near the pole could also be crucial for future lunar missions from India and other countries, which could use any discovered ice for fuel, oxygen and water.
The landing also puts India ahead of other countries racing to land on the Moon, if not always for the first time. Russia’s Luna-25 spacecraft crashed just two days earlier, and Israel expects a follow-up to its Beresheet lander in 2024. The United Arab Emirates also wants to land by 2024. The US, meanwhile, hopes to return people to the moon with its Artemis 3 mission in late 2025. These also din’t include commercial efforts. There’s a renewed interest in Earth’s closest cosmic neighbor, and India is now part of that vanguard.