India loses contact with spacecraft on mission to the moon

Science

BENGALURU (Reuters) – India lost contact with a spacecraft it was attempting to land on the moon on Saturday, the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) said, in a setback to the nation’s ambitious plans to become the first country to probe the unexplored lunar south pole.

FILE PHOTO: Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) scientists work on various modules of lunar mission Chandrayaan-2 at ISRO Satellite Integration and Test Establishment (ISITE) in Bengaluru, India, June 12, 2019. Picture taken through a green glass window. REUTERS/Chris Thomas

The lander of India’s Chandrayaan-2 moon mission was attempting a “soft,” or controlled, landing near the south pole of the moon where scientists believe there could be water ice. ISRO lost communication with it just as it was about to land on the moon.

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“Data is being analyzed,” ISRO Chairman K Sivan told a room full of distraught scientists at the agency’s tracking center in Bengaluru.

The Indian designed spacecraft, which had been orbiting the moon, began descending towards the lunar surface at about 2007 GMT but scientists lost contact with it during the penultimate stage of the descent.

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For a graphic on the spacecraft’s planned landing sequence, click here

“Vikram lander descent was as planned and normal performance was observed up to an altitude of 2.1 km. Subsequently, communication from Lander to the ground stations was lost,” an ISRO official said. The lander was named Vikram after the father of India’s space program, Vikram Sarabhai.

A live broadcast from ISRO, India’s equivalent of NASA, showed scientists grow tense and the floor fall silent as the control station struggled to get a signal from the lander.

“There are ups and downs in life … What you have accomplished is no small achievement,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was present at the ISRO center, told scientists after being briefed by Sivan.

Sivan had earlier described the final moments of the landing mission as “15 minutes of terror,” due to the complexities involved with lunar gravity, terrain and dust.

Only the United States, Russia and China have landed on the moon. Beijing’s Chang’e-4 probe touched down on the far side earlier this year. Israel made an unsuccessful attempt to land its Beresheet spacecraft on the moon in April.

The south pole is believed to contain water as craters in the region are largely unaffected by the high temperatures of the sun. ISRO had hoped to confirm the presence of water in the form of ice, first detected on its mission in 2008.

Reporting by Chris Thomas and Ismail Shakil in Bengaluru; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Sandra Maler

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