Search continues for India’s Chandrayaan-2 Vikram moon lander

Source: ISRO, hoisting of Vikram lander during Chandrayaan2 spacecraft integration at launch centre

The search for India’s Chandrayaan-2 Vikram moon lander continues following a failure to land on the moon on September 7.

ISRO, The Indian Space Research Organisation, launched Chandrayaan-2 (moon vehicle 2) on July 22, 2019 and after over a month in space, the mission was going according to plan. However, ISRO lost contact with the lander, Vikram, on September 7 seconds before it touched down on the moon’s surface.

Vikram, gaining its name from, Vikram Sarabhai ISRO’s founder, was set to land in the moon’s south pole region with the main objective of the space mission to locate and map the moon’s water reserves.

According to ISRO, the lander was descending at a velocity of 1,640 meters per second and successfully performed the first two phases known as rough braking and fine braking operations; however, it appears that during the final “hovering” phase, when the count was in progress, an issue arose. ISRO livestreamed the view from mission control.

Initial reactions came from a former member, Prof Roddam Narasimha, who said the issue was likely the lander’s central engine, with his assumptions based on the data provided on the screen. “One plausible explanation was that the lander started falling more rapidly. It’s supposed to come down at a velocity of two meters per second when it hits the Moon’s surface. But the gravity on the moon would have made it fall somewhat more rapidly.” He continued saying central engine was probably not, “producing the thrust that is required and, therefore, the deceleration was no longer what it was supposed to be”. This could have then led to communication failure.

 Mylswamy Annadurai, The head of Chandrayaan-1, India’s first moon mission also spoke after the incident of the malfunction saying, “Most likely the orientation could have been disrupted. Once we look at the data we will be able to say for sure what happened, but it is likely that either a sensor or a thruster could have malfunctioned.”

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft flew over Vikram’s targeted landing site on Tuesday and successfully captured a series of images of the area. 

LRO deputy project scientist John Keller shared a NASA statement confirming that the orbiter’s camera captured the images. “The LROC team will analyze these new images and compare them to previous images to see if the lander is visible (it may be in shadow or outside the imaged area).”

The LRO will fly over again on October 14 when lighting conditions are expected to be better. NASA said it will make the results of this week’s flyover available as soon as possible.

There is still uncertainty about where exactly Vikram ended up and whether it crashed or may have landed intact. ISRO has not yet been able to establish communication with the lander since the incident.

India had hoped to become just the fourth country to successfully soft-land a spacecraft on the moon following the US, China and the former Soviet Union. Israel had also attempted this back in April, but its Beresheet mission crashed on arrival