Sun, Sep 08, 2019 - Page 1 News List

India loses contact with lunar lander before touchdown


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, speaks with Indian Space Research Organisation Chairman Kailasavadivoo Sivan at the agency’s headquarters in Bengaluru, India, yesterday.

Photo: AFP / Indian Press Information Bureau

India’s space program yesterday suffered a huge setback after it lost contact with an uncrewed spacecraft moments before it was due to make a historic soft landing on the moon.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought to comfort glum scientists and a stunned nation from the lunar program’s command center in Bengaluru, saying that India was “proud” and clasping the visibly emotional mission chief in a lengthy bear hug.

The emerging Asian giant had hoped to become just the fourth country after the US, Russia and regional rival China to make a successful moon landing, and the first on the lunar South Pole after the mission’s launch in July.

However, early yesterday, as Modi looked on and millions watched with bated breath nationwide, Vikram, the lander named after the father of India’s space program, went silent just 2.1km above the lunar surface.

“The Vikram lander descent was [going] as planned and normal performance was observed,” Indian Space Research Organisation Chairman Kailasavadivoo Sivan said.

“Subsequently, the communication from the lander to the ground station was lost,” he said in a stunned operations room. “The data is being analyzed.”

However, the Chandrayaan-2 (“Moon Vehicle 2”) orbiter, which is to circle and study the moon remotely for a year, is “healthy, intact, functioning normally and safely in the lunar orbit,” the agency said.

Freshly re-elected Modi had hoped to bask in the glory of a successful mission, but he deftly turned into consoler-in-chief in a speech at mission control broadcast live on TV and to his 50 million Twitter followers.

“Sisters and brothers of India, resilience and tenacity are central to India’s ethos. In our glorious history of thousands of years, we have faced moments that may have slowed us, but they have never crushed our spirit,” Modi said.

“We have bounced back again... This is the reason our civilization stands tall,” he said. “When it comes to our space program, the best is yet to come.”

Chandrayaan-2 took off on July 22 carrying an orbiter, lander and rover almost entirely designed and made in India, a week after an initial launch was halted just before blastoff.

The agency had acknowledged before the soft landing that it was a complex maneuver, which Sivan called “15 minutes of terror.”

It was carrying rover Pragyan — “wisdom” in Sanskrit — which was due to emerge several hours after touchdown. The rover was expected to explore craters for clues on the origin and evolution of the moon, and also for evidence on how much water the polar region contains.

The Chandrayaan-2 space mission — India’s most ambitious so far — stood out because of its low cost of about US$140 million.

The US spent the equivalent of more than US$100 billion on its Apollo missions.

India is preparing Gaganyaan, its first crewed space mission, with the Indian Air Force on Friday announcing that the first level of selection of potential astronauts was complete.

The South Asian nation also hopes to land a probe on Mars.

In 2014, it became only the fourth nation to put a satellite into orbit around the Red Planet.

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