Russia’s first moon landing attempt since the 1970s failed on Sunday (August 20, 2023) as the Luna-25 lander crashed into the lunar surface after losing contact with Earth controls, said Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos. Launched on August 11, Luna-25 was in a race with India to become the world’s first mission to land in the lunar south pole region. But India now has the opportunity to place the first probe near the lunar south pole with its Chandrayaan-3 mission, launched on July 14 last. Chandrayaan-3, ISRO’s highly ambitious mission, is in its final phase. The Indian spacecraft aims to achieve a gentle touchdown on the Moon’s surface after a similar attempt by Chandrayaan-2 on September 7, 2019. It has chosen a lengthier—but more fuel-conserving—route to the Moon and its landing is scheduled for Wednesday. A successful Chandrayaan-3 mission would position India as the fourth nation to achieve the feat of softly landing a robotic lunar rover on the Moon’s surface, following the US, China and the erstwhile Soviet Union. The mission, launched as a follow-up to Chandrayaan-2, aims to showcase the full process of safe landing and rover movement on the lunar surface.
On August 17, the Indian spacecraft had effectively detached the Lander Module, housing the Vikram lander and Pragyan rover, from the Propulsion Module. It successfully adjusted its orbit to 113 km x 157 km on August 18, through effective deboosting after launch on July 14. India is poised to set a new record with a soft landing on the Moon’s southern polar region. So far, soft landings have been accomplished exclusively in the Moon’s equatorial zone by the US, China and Russia. Lunar missions have historically focused on the equator due to its favourable topography and operational circumstances. The southern polar area of the Moon poses distinct challenges owing to its markedly different terrain. India has chosen to explore the Moon’s southern pole due to its larger expanse in comparison with the northern pole. The presence of water is a potential consideration in the perpetually shaded zones around this region.
The lunar South Pole experiences unique conditions, where the Sun remains close to the horizon, leading to temperatures surpassing 54°C during periods of sunlight. Despite the illumination, certain craters contain permanently shadowed areas that have remained devoid of sunlight for billions of years, causing temperatures to plummet to as low as -203°C. Despite employing sophisticated sensors, discerning the lunar south pole’s terrain and appearance will be challenging for a descending vehicle due to the interplay of landscape and lighting conditions. The extreme and contrasting conditions found on the lunar south pole present difficulties for humans. Yet, they also hold the promise of containing valuable insights into the early solar system. Many government space initiatives and private organisations across the world are intrigued by this area of the Moon, as they believe it may contain water ice that could prove invaluable for future astronauts. From Chandrayaan-3 to the Luna-25 mission and NASA’s Artemis II, lunar exploration has consistently captivated space scientists for centuries. What drives the strong interest of major powers on the Moon?