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Triumphs and Troubles: This Week at the Moon

India’s Pragyan rover successfully negotiates the terrain of the Lunar South Pole, a first for any nation.
Credit: ISRO

Since Russia’s final robotic sample return departed the Moon in 1976, China has been the only nation conducting Moon landings, and has landed on the moon three times since 2013. That changed however, at roughly 7:32 AM UTC on the 23rd of August 2023, when India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission successfully completed its seven and a half week journey to the lunar surface. Now, after four years of planning and hard work, Chandrayaan-3 can begin its two week science mission at the lunar south pole. Chandrayaan-3 will be the first mission to operate on the south pole, the region targeted by the Artemis Program for its concentration of water deposits.
Due to receiving less energy from the Sun, the lunar south pole has been found to host deposits of ice water, which makes it a prime target for sustainable crewed visitation. Local water ice deposits lighten the load on cargo that must be transported from Earth to support crew working on a prospective lunar outpost. Water can also be separated into oxygen and hydrogen through a process called electrolysis, which can then be used to power rocket engines. Previously, measurements of ice on the lunar south pole have only ever been collected from orbit, and through observation plumes created by intentionally crashed impactors. The Chandrayaan-3 lander, named Vikram, has now become the first vehicle to complete a soft landing in the region, and is now able to provide the first in-situ data on the lunar south pole’s ice deposits. Soon after landing, the Chandrayaan-3 rover, Pragyan, departed from Vikram to begin its investigation of ice water concentrations in the area of the landing site, southeast of the rim of Manzinus Crater. India has now become the third nation to operate a robotic rover on the lunar surface.

The success of the landing was met with praise from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who watched the landing live. His speech following the lunar touchdown praised the teams who worked on Chandrayaan-3, the progress of his country, and declared that they had faced “oceans of difficulty, and won.” Narendra Modi later continued, “The success (of Chandrayaan-3) belongs to all of humanity, and it will help moon missions by other countries in the future. I am confident that all countries in the world, including those from the global south, are capable of achieving such feats. We can all aspire for the Moon and beyond.”

There is already some truth in these claims, as the lessons learned by Chandrayaan-3 will be applied in the Lunar Polar Exploration (LUPEX) mission, a joint project between ISRO and the Japanese space agency, JAXA. The mission consists of an Indian lander and Japanese rover, which will seek out ice deposits in permanently shadowed regions of the lunar south pole, and act as a test bed for long endurance capabilities on the Moon. LUPEX will also rely on advanced guidance systems which will be first tested by JAXA’s SLIM mission. SLIM, which launches on Sunday the 27th, will be this year’s fourth lunar landing attempt. If SLIM is successful, Japan will become the fifth nation to land on the Moon, and the only one to do it on the first try. It is the success of both missions, however, that will ensure the success of LUPEX.

JAXA’s SLIM mission will attempt a soft landing on the lunar surface, adding to the list of countries to have successfully done so.
Credit: JAXA

After the Prime Minister’s speech, ISRO Chairman S. Somanath introduced Chandrayaan-3 Project Director P. Veeramuthuvel, Associate Project Director Kalpana Kalahasti, Mission Operations Director M. Srikanth, and Director of U. R. Rao Satellite Centre M. Sankaran. Together, they praised the success of the mission, and the efforts mission teams made to ensure that success. They highlighted ISRO’s plans to begin crewed space flights in the next few years, their previously announced Venus Orbiter Mission, and hinted towards the possibility of a Mars lander in the future, which has not yet been formally announced. They also stated that ISRO looks forward to the launch of Aditya-L1, a solar observation satellite, next month.

India was not the only nation to attempt a Moon landing this week. On the 19th of August, Luna 25 was supposed to perform a planned maneuver to lower its orbit around the Moon ahead of its planned Monday landing. During the burn, something went wrong, and this triggered an emergency situation wherein contact was lost with Luna 25, and Roscosmos began work to recover the spacecraft. The details of the incident were unclear, all that was known definitively was that the burn to move Luna 25 into its pre-landing orbit was not completed as planned. Whether this meant the engine had suffered a malfunction or the spacecraft had maneuvered incorrectly was unclear. Around twelve hours after our previous article discussing Luna 25 was published, Roscosmos officially declared the mission lost. The cause of failure was confirmed to be an impulse error. An impulse issue means either the engine burned too long or too strong, this means the resulting lunar orbit was significantly lower than intended, or worse, intersected the lunar surface. According to Roscosmos Head Yuri Borisov, the spacecraft’s engines had fired for 127 seconds instead of the intended 84, resulting in Luna 25 entering into a suborbital trajectory where it then crashed into the Moon.

After news broke that Luna 25 had crashed, Mikhail Marov, 90, a leading Russian astronomer who once served a lead role in the Soviet exploration of Venus, reportedly fell ill and was hospitalized. Mikhail Marov worked as a consultant for the Luna 25 mission, and while the exact nature of the illness has not been made clear, it is claimed to be connected to the loss of the mission. According to Reuters, Marov is quoted as saying “This was perhaps the last hope for me to see a revival of our lunar programme,” and indications regarding Russia’s future lunar plans align with this statement.

Roscosmos previously announced that Luna 26, a lunar orbiter with no landing component, is slated for launch in 2027, with lander Luna 27 meant to launch in 2028. However, considering the lack of visible progress on Luna 26, and the ten years of work needed to turn Luna 25 into something space worthy, there is considerable doubt whether Russia will be able to launch another mission to the Moon in this decade. This concern is further exacerbated by the impending retirement of the International Space Station, which works as a firm timer against Russia’s crewed spaceflight program. If Russia wishes to maintain a crewed spaceflight program comparable to those of China and the United States, it must divert incredible effort and resources into the construction of its Russian Orbital Station (ROS). This could pull Roscosmos even further away from the Moon, without much choice in the matter. Roscosmos released a video elaborating on ROS on the evening of the 22nd, further cementing the potential of a shift in focus.

Newly released render of the Russian Orbital Station, the projected backbone of Russian crewed spaceflight in an era after the International Space Station.
Source: Roscosmos TV

With the loss of iSpace’s Hakuto-R landing back in April, the loss of Luna 25, the historic landing of Chandrayaan-3, and three more robotic Moon landers scheduled to launch this year, 2023 is shaping up to be one of the busiest years the Moon has seen since the height of the space race. This level of activity won’t be disappearing anytime soon: the projected November launches of Astrobotic’s Peregrine and Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C Lander will kick off NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program into active cargo delivery flights. Artemis II, the first crewed mission to the Moon in half a century, remains on track for Q4 next year, with stacking expected to begin next summer. China’s Chang’e program is planned to return to flight next year with its second robotic sample return. We have entered a new era of lunar exploration, one which will lay the groundwork not only for crew operations on the Moon, but for increasingly advanced robotic endeavors. As robotic missions become more advanced, the extent to which we can investigate the Moon will increase with those capabilities, and as launch costs decrease, the ability for any interested nation to participate in that exploration will only expand further. Truly, we can all aspire for the Moon and beyond.

Edited by Beverly Casillas and Nik Alexander

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