India’s Chandrayaan-3 probe successfully lands on the lunar south pole

India is now the first nation to successfully achieve a soft landing near the Moon’s southern pole. | Photo by INDRANIL MUKHERJEE / AFP via Getty Images

India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission has made space travel history today by successfully achieving a soft landing near the south pole of Earth’s Moon, just days after Russia’s Luna 25 spacecraft crashed while trying to land in the same region. India is now the fourth nation to achieve a soft Moon landing and the first to have successfully touched down on the lunar south pole — a little-explored area of the Moon that’s believed to contain water ice.

Three other nations — the US, China, and the former Soviet Union — have all previously achieved a soft landing near the Moon’s equator, a safer region with (comparatively) amiable temperatures and terrain and reliable sunlight to recharge solar-powered instruments. During a live stream of the lander’s touchdown, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the successful outcome of this mission sets the country up for future human spaceflight.

By contrast, much of the Moon’s southern pole is littered with deep craters and basins that are permanently shrouded in darkness. According to NASA, these areas haven’t seen sunlight in billions of years and can experience temperatures as low as negative 334 degrees Fahrenheit (negative 203 degrees Celsius). The extreme conditions in these “cold traps” make remote observation from Earth difficult and present problems for operating sensitive equipment in the region.

The Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft took 22 days to enter the Moon’s orbit on August 5th, following its launch from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on July 14th. On August 17th, the Vikram lander carrying Pragyan — a lunar ground rover — successfully separated from its propulsion module in preparation for today’s soft landing.

Two images showing the Moon’s north and south poles, with blue dots indicating the distribution of water ice.
Image: NASA
This image from NASA shows the definite distribution of surface ice at the Moon’s south pole (left) and north pole (right).

The mission marks India’s second attempt at a lunar landing after the Chandrayaan-2 lander crashed into the Moon’s surface back in 2019. The next stage of the Chandrayaan-3 mission will involve deploying Pragyan to survey the local environment for one lunar day (around 14 Earth days) and carry out a variety of scientific experiments. These include using X-ray spectrometry to identify the elemental composition of the Moon’s surface.

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