India’s space agency lost contact with its Moon lander during the final few minutes of its descent early on 7 September, Indian time. It was the country’s first attempt at placing a craft on the Moon.
An official statement from the Indian Space Research Organization said the descent had gone as planned until the lander, called Vikram, reached 2.1 kilometres above the lunar surface. “Subsequently, communication from Lander to the ground stations was lost. Data is being analysed,” according to the statement.
ISRO did not provide further details, but a scientist from the agency, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak, said that the lander had likely crashed on the surface.
Had the touchdown been successful, India would have become the first country to land on the lunar south pole, and the fourth country to set a craft on the Moon, after the United States, the Soviet Union and China.
Earlier this week, Vikram separated from an orbiter that is currently travelling around the Moon as part of the Chandrayaan-2 mission.
The lander started its 15-minutes automated descent at about 1:40 a.m. Indian time. The first phase of ‘rough braking’ brought the lander down from 30 kilometres to 7.4 kilometres above the Moon. During the second phase it reached 5 kilometres above the surface. The craft continued into its third phase until it reached 2.1 kilometres above the surface. It was then, about three minutes before the craft’s planned touch down, that trouble struck.
ISRO’s automated landing system is a new and untested technology for the agency. The agency’s chairman Kailasavadivoo Sivan said in August: “The soft-landing is the one aspect of the mission we have never attempted before. It will be difficult.”
In 2008, the agency deliberated crashed an impact probe, released by the Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter, onto the Moon.
Although the landing did not go as planned, the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter, which carries eight Indian instruments, is functioning normally, ISRO officials said. Some of these instruments will search for signs of water on the Moon.
Vikram carried three Indian instruments and one from NASA, while the rover carried two Indian instruments. They were designed to gather data on the Moon’s surface.
It is the second time this year that a mission to the Moon has encountered problems during landing. In April, the Israeli spacecraft Beresheet crash-landed on the surface after encountering engine trouble just moments before touch down. The mission had hoped to be the first privately-funded craft to make a controlled landing on the Moon.