Chandrayaan-2: India’s daring mission back to the Moon
Vikram lander, artist impression. Credit: ISRO video

Chandrayaan-2: India’s daring mission back to the Moon

27/06/2019Written by Sam Shingles

In July 2019 India undertakes its next steps in exploring the Moon, aiming for the South Pole.

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The lunar south pole, imaged by the Clementine mission. Credit: NASA

India is returning to the Moon, aiming for the barely-visited South Pole.

After a successful first mission to the Moon just over a decade ago, the Chandrayaan-2 mission is getting ready for launch in 2019. Chandrayaan-2 is India’s second mission to the Moon, and this time it will include an orbiter, a lander, and a rover.

If this mission proves to be successful, then it will become only the second mission to land a rover near the Moon’s south pole and will showcase India’s growing expertise in space exploration.

A brief history of India in space

A brief history of India in space

India’s space agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation or ISRO, was formed in 1969, the same year that humans first walked on the Moon. In 1975, ISRO built its first satellite, Aryabhata, with help from the Soviet Union and in 1980 the ISRO launched their first satellite using their own Indian-built rocket.

More recently, ISRO have set some impressive records. They became the first nation to successfully reach Mars on their first attempt with the Mars Obiter Mission, which entered a Martian orbit in September 2014. This also made them the first Asian space agency to reach Mars.

In February 2017, the ISRO launched 104 satellites in a single payload, setting a remarkable new world record. These missions highlight the progress being made by the ISRO to further their space programme and add their expertise to the growing number of space agencies around the world.

India’s first lunar mission

India’s first lunar mission
Launch of Chandryaan-1 in 2008. Credit: ISRO

In 2008, India set its first sights on the Moon and launched the Chandrayaan-1 lunar mission. Chandrayaan translates as in Hindi as chandra = moon, yaan= ship for a literal translation of MoonCraft.

Chandrayaan-1 included both an orbiter spacecraft and an impact probe, in order to map and sample the polar regions of the Moon. The mission was meant to last two years but unfortunately ISRO lost contact in August 2009.

Despite this, the Chandrayaan-1 mission managed to achieve 95% of its aims, including detecting widespread water molecules in the Moon’s soil. Chandrayaan-1 was the testing ground that laid the foundations for India’s future Moon ambitions.

Back to the Moon: Chandrayaan-2

Back to the Moon: Chandrayaan-2
Chandryaan-2 orbiter, artist impression. Credit: ISRO video
Back to the Moon: Chandrayaan-2
Chandrayaan-2 rover deploy. Credit: ISRO
Back to the Moon: Chandrayaan-2
Chandryaan-2 rover in testing. Credit: ISRO

Following the success of Chandrayaan-1, a more ambitious and daring mission was developed, Chandrayaan-2. Originally it was a joint mission between ISRO and the Russian space agency Roscosmos, however Russia had to pull out due to orbital failures in another mission.  That mission contained similar aspects to those they were building for Chandrayaan-2. It was therefore left to India to develop the mission independently.

Chandrayaan-2’s main aim is to achieve a soft landing on the Moon and drive a rover across its surface, testing new technology and conducting new experiments.

The mission includes an orbiter, a lander, and a rover, these will all be connected at launch. Once these have reached an orbit around the Moon, the high resolution camera on board the orbiter will image the landing site before the lander detaches. From then on the orbiter will map the Moon’s geology and minerology and also analyse Moon’s thin atmosphere.

The lander is named Vikram after Vikram Sarabhai, the father of India’s space programme. The lander will detach from the orbiter and descend to the Moon’s surface making a soft landing. If successful, the lander will deploy the rover and carry out its own experiments over two weeks. It has a seismometer on board to help study Moon-quakes near the lander. It also has a thermal probe to measure the thermal properties of the Moon. This will provide more information on the internal structure of the Moon and its properties.

Meanwhile rover, named Pragyan, meaning ‘wisdom’, will explore the surface, powered by solar panels. It will travel across the Moon, sampling and analysing the lunar soil. It will then send its data up to the orbiter, which will then relay it back to Earth. This will provide scientists on Earth with more information about the Moons geology and will help to determine how it formed and evolved over time.

Looking to the future

Looking to the future
Yutu-2 as images from Chang'e-4. Credit: CNSA / CLEP
Looking to the future
SpaceIL's Beresheet lander, artist impression. Credit: SpaceIL
Looking to the future
NASA's plans for humans on the Moon by 2024. Credit: NASA

Like many new space missions, Chandrayaan-2 has had a few delays. However, the current timeframe is an expected launch in July 2019.

Fifty years on from the first humans on the Moon, India is not the only nation to be landing on the Moon in 2019. China successfully landed its Chang’e 4 rover on the Moon in January 2019, and plans to follow this with the Chang’e 5 and 6 missions in the near future.

In April 2019, an Israeli company attempted to become the first private company to land on the Moon with its SpaceIL mission, however a successful journey unfortunately ended in a crash landing.

Over the next few years NASA is planning to launch a series of lunar missions recently called Artemis, with the aim of landing humans on the Moon again by 2024. There are also new lunar missions planned from countries such as Russia and Japan.

Heading back to the Moon makes sense for many reasons. We now have the technology to go back to the Moon for a much lower cost than previously. And with one eye on Mars, we first need to practice long-duration missions on a base much closer to home, and potentially use the Moon as a stepping stone to Mars. Finally, the Moon still holds many unanswered questions about its history, geology, and potential for mineral resources.

Many nations around the world, as well as private companies are joining in the quest to explore and understand space. Many of these agencies have their eyes set on the Moon as a gateway to deeper space and with all of these new and exciting missions, we will hopefully soon see the return of humans on the Moon and beyond.

Here at the National Space Centre we have our fingers crossed for a successful mission for Chandrayaan-2 and will be anticipating all the new discoveries to come!

UPDATE: Chandrayaan-2 successfully launched on 22 July 2019 from Satish Dhawan Space Center on Sriharikota Island near Chennai, India.

About the author: Sam Shingles is a physics student at the University of Leicester and works as a Science Interpreter at the National Space Centre.