India and Russia Race Towards Historic Moon’s South Pole Landings

India’s space agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), has unveiled the most recent images of the Moon as its Chandrayaan-3 mission progresses toward the little-explored lunar south pole. These black-and-white images, captured by Vikram, Chandrayaan-3’s lander, showcase close-ups of the Moon’s rocky surface and its craters. Notably, one photograph depicts the propulsion module from which Vikram separated.

Mission Details and Historical Context

  • Chandrayaan-3’s descent began on Thursday, setting its sights on a landing near the south pole scheduled for 23 August.
  • The lander module initiated its journey towards a closer orbit, as announced by ISRO on Friday.
  • As part of India’s lunar exploration continuum, Chandrayaan-3 is anticipated to capitalize on its predecessor’s successes. Chandrayaan-1, launched in 2008, made the groundbreaking discovery of water molecules on the Moon, revealing a daytime atmosphere. Chandrayaan-2, launched in 2019, had mixed results with its orbiter still operational, but its lander rover crashed during the landing phase.
  • India stands to be the fourth nation to accomplish a soft Moon landing, following the US, the former Soviet Union, and China.
  • Addressing the upcoming mission, ISRO’s chief, Sreedhara Panicker Somanath, emphasized the agency’s efforts in analyzing the Chandrayaan-2 crash data and undertaking simulation exercises. These measures ensured the rectification of glitches in the 3,900kg Chandrayaan-3, which had a project cost of 6.1bn rupees ($75m; £58m). The lander module itself weighs approximately 1,500kg, with the rover, Pragyaan, weighing 26kg.

More details on ISRO’s official website

Chandrayaan-3’s Manoeuvres and Landing Strategy

On Friday, the day following its separation from the propulsion module, the Chandrayaan-3 landing module executed its initial “deboost” maneuver, drawing it nearer to the lunar surface. ISRO reported:

  • Lander module health remains in optimal condition.
  • Following a successful deboosting operation, the lander’s orbit was adjusted to 113 km x 157 km. A second deboosting is slated for 20 August 2023 at around 0200 hours (IST).
  • By 23 August, Vikram must reach a perilune of approximately 30 km. At this point, the lander will utilize deboosters to manage its descent speed.
  • Upon achieving a soft landing, the Pragyaan rover will exit the lander to commence its exploration, deploying two payloads to investigate the Moon’s chemical, mineralogical, and elemental composition.

The Broader Lunar Exploration Landscape: Russia’s Luna-25

While Chandrayaan-3 advances, Russia’s Luna-25 is concurrently making its way to the Moon’s south pole. This mission marks Russia’s first lunar venture since 1976. The Luna-25 spacecraft aims to make a historic soft landing on either the 21st or 22nd of August, a mere day or two ahead of the Chandrayaan-3 landing.

Historic Importance and National Interests

  • For Russia, this mission offers a chance to affirm its autonomous space capabilities, especially after its geopolitical differences in 2022 affecting space collaborations with Western nations. Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, has disclosed that Luna-25 would spend 5-7 days in lunar orbit prior to its descent, with three potential landing sites near the pole under consideration.
  • India eyes this mission as a symbol of its rising prowess in space exploration. With the Indian government encouraging investments in private space ventures, the nation has witnessed a surge in space startups since 2020. The successful Skyroot Aerospace launch, backed by Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC, serves as a testament to this growth.

Both missions focus on the Moon’s south pole due to its vast unexplored regions, which, being shadow-rich, may house water. This water ice could support human habitation, and future moon missions, and even act as a propellant for deep-space journeys, underlining the pole’s significance for future human space endeavors.

As these missions progress, global eyes will remain riveted on these simultaneous lunar landings, underscoring the growing role of space exploration in international affairs.