Jason DavisSep 06, 2019

India's Vikram Spacecraft Apparently Crash-Lands on Moon

India's Chandrayaan-2 Vikram lander has apparently crashed on the lunar surface. The spacecraft, carrying a small rover named Pragyan, began its powered descent to the surface today around 20:08 UTC. Touchdown in the Moon's south polar region was expected to occur 15 minutes later. 

Just moments before landing, telemetry screens at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) mission control center froze, in a scene eerily reminiscent to the crash of Israel's Beresheet lander in April. Those screens reported the spacecraft was traveling at a horizontal speed of about 48 meters per second and a vertical speed of about 60 meters per second, just over 1 kilometer from the landing site. A flight controller said communications with NASA's Deep Space Network in Madrid had stopped. Several minutes later, ISRO chief K. Sivan said that Vikram's descent was nominal until an altitude of 2.1 kilometers, and communications were lost shortly thereafter.

Chandrayaan-2, India's Moon Orbiter

India's Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft studies the composition of the Moon's surface and searches for signatures of water ice.

The most probable conclusion is that Vikram crashed on the surface. The apparent end of the lander comes a month and a half after it launched as part of the combined Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft on 22 July. Chandrayaan-2 arrived in lunar orbit on 20 August, and Vikram separated on 2 September. The lander successfully used its engines to descend to an orbit with a perilune, or low point above the lunar surface, of just 35 kilometers.

The Chandrayaan-2 orbiter, meanwhile, continues to operate and is expected to perform scientific obervations of the Moon for at least a year. Among its science instruments is an infrared spectrometer that will search for signatures of hydroxyl and water ice near the Moon's south pole.

Had Vikram landed, India would have been just the fourth country to successfully soft-land a spacecraft on the lunar surface. Earlier this year, that honor almost went to Israel thanks to the country's Beresheet lander, but a software glitch caused the spacecraft's engines to shut down at the last minute. Like Beresheet, Vikram sent data home up until the last minute, which will provide valuable troubleshooting data that can also improve the chances of success for future missions.