ISRO’s soft-landing on Moon fails to go as per script

Bengaluru, September 7, 2019: India’s bold bid to become only the fourth country to achieve a soft landing on the Moon ended in a huge disappointment on Saturday when contact with Chandrayaan-2’s landing module was abruptly lost seconds before it was to descend the final 2.1 km and touch down on the lunar surface.

As crestfallen scientists of the Indian Space Research Organisation in Bengaluru struggled to come to terms with the reverse after lander ‘Vikram’ was on steady course to touch the lunar south pole, Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the nation in rallying behind them, saying they should not get disheartened.

India also would have been the only country to land on the Moon’s unexplored south pole as part of the Rs 978 crore Chandrayaan-2 mission conceived a decade ago.

Modi, who addressed the scientists on Saturday morning at the ISRO Mission Control Centre (MCC) complex for the second time in six hours, asserted in words of comfort that there will be a ‘new dawn and brighter tomorrow’ and the best is yet to come in the country’s space programme.

The nation is proud of the scientists and stands with them, he said.

“We came very close but we need to cover more ground in the times to come. Learning from today will make us stronger and better. The nation is proud of our space programme and scientists. The best is yet to come in our space programme. There are new frontiers to discover and new places to go. India is with you,” Modi said.

The process of controlled descent starting with the rough braking of the 1,471-kg lander named after Dr Vikram A Sarabhai, father of the Indian space programme, its progression to fine braking (till the altitude of 2.1 km), all considered ‘complex and terrifying’, culminated with a statement that contact with ‘Vikram’ was lost.

While millions of people waited with bated breath to witness the lander’s touch down after the mission was launched on July 22 to flawlessly cover nearly 4 lakh kilometres in 47 days in multiple manoeuvres, a mood of gloom descended over the control centre after ISRO Chairman K Sivan made a sombre announcement in the presence of the prime minister after some tense moments.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and ISRO Chief K Sivan. (PTI Photo)

“Vikram lander descent was as planned and normal performance was observed up to an altitude of 2.1 km. Subsequently, communication from the lander to ground stations was lost,” said Sivan, his voice choking.

“The data is being analysed,” he said at the control centre at the ISRO’s Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC) in Bengaluru.

The lander’s progress was greeted with applause at the control centre, where 60 high school students from across the country were also present, each time it crossed a critical phase for the planned soft-landing at around 1.55 am.

The last 15 minutes of the mission when the lander attempts to guide itself with the help of its own propulsion system without any support from ground control has repeatedly been described by Sivan as ’15 minutes of terror’.

A senior ISRO official said the four-legged lander and the six-wheeled rover ‘Pragyan’ housed inside that was planned for a roll-out between 5.30 am and 6.30 am to carry out experiments may have been lost.

If ‘Vikram’ had pulled off the historic touchdown, the country could have joined the US, Russia and China in soft-landing on the lunar surface.

Though the intended mission met with a reverse, an ISRO official said the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter is healthy and safe in the lunar orbit, in some relief to the space agency.

“The orbiter is healthy, intact, functioning normally and safely in the lunar orbit,” the official told PTI.

The mission life of the 2,379-kg orbiter is one year and its payloads will conduct remote-sensing observations from a 100-km orbit.

According to United States space agency National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s ‘Moon Fact Sheet’, the success rate of lunar missions undertaken in the last six decades is 60 per cent.

Of the 109 lunar missions during the period, 61 were successful while 48 failed.

Modi, who arrived here Friday night to watch the touch-down of ‘Vikram’, gave a morale boosting pep talk to scientists immediately after the setback.

“I see disappointment on your faces. No need to get dejected. We have learnt a lot,” Modi said. “These are moments to be courageous, and courageous we will be! We remain hopeful and will continue working hard on our space programme.”

Hours later, the prime minister again delivered a message of optimism, solidarity and hope to scientists in an address, which was broadcast live, after contact with the lander was lost.

“We came very close but we need to cover more ground in the times to come. Learning from today will make us stronger and better. The nation is proud of our space programme and scientists. The best is yet to come in our space programme. There are new frontiers to discover and new places to go. India is with you,” Modi said.

The nation is proud of them and stands with them, he said and later gave a tight hug to an emotional Sivan, who was in tears, unable to come to terms over the unsuccessful bid.

President Ramnath Kovind expressed confidence that the ISRO will one day overcome the setback.

Chief ministers, including Arvind Kejriwal (Delhi) and Pinarayi Vijayan (Kerala) and leaders of all political parties including Rahul Gandhi of the Congress and the film industry extended their solidarity to the scientists. Messages of encouragement for ISRO scientists flooded the micro-blogging site Twitter as well.

G Madhavan Nair, a former ISRO chairman during whose tenure Chandrayaan-1 was launched a decade ago, said the mission has achieved 95 per cent of its objectives despite the lander not touching down. India’s 2008 moon mission had discovered the presence of water molecules on the parched lunar surface.

Former NASA astronaut Jerry Linenger said the lessons learnt from India’s ‘bold attempt’ to soft land the ‘Vikram’ module will help the country during its future missions.

Chandrayaan-2, a follow-on mission, involved meticulous planning with the involvement of hundreds of top scientists.

Approved in 2008, it is a Rs 978-crore initiative (satellite cost Rs 603 crore, GSLV MK III cost Rs 375 crore) and a successor to Chandrayaan-1 mission, it comprised an orbiter, lander and rover.

The orbiter carries eight scientific payloads for mapping the lunar surface and study the exosphere (outer atmosphere) of the moon.

ISRO had deferred the lunar mission’s launch last year after a loss in communication with military satellite, GSAT 6A.

India’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle, GSLV MkIII-M1 successfully launched the 3,840-kg Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft into the Earth’s orbit on July 22, a week after it was aborted at the last minute due to a technical glitch.

The spacecraft began its journey towards the moon leaving the earth’s orbit on August 14, and entered the lunar orbit on August 20.

On September 2, ‘Vikram’ separated from the orbiter, following which two de-orbiting manoeuvres were performed to bring the lander closer to the Moon.

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