An astronomer observing India’s first moon landing mission said the spacecraft may have crashed into the lunar surface during its descent on Friday.
The lunar rover Vikram is part of a larger $140 million mission called Chandrayaan-2 by Indian Space and Research Organization. As per schedule, Vikram deployed from the orbiting spacecraft earlier to make its descent, and everything was going as planned until about 1.3 miles i.e. a mere 2.1 kilometers above the surface of the moon’s south pole. At that juncture, the Vikram lander spacecraft diverged from its expected trajectory. Just moments later, ISRO’s spacecraft operators lost contact with its communications systems. Mission control went completely quiet, and somebody patted India’s space-program director, Mr. K. Sivan, on the back.
The mishap occurred during the landing phase that Sivan had previously described as “15 minutes of terror,” The New York Times reported. The spacecraft’s onboard computers had to complete a complex series of steps in the right sequence, with no room for error.
Sivan later made an official announcement that the landing had been going according to plan until the 1.3-mile mark.
“The data is being analyzed,” he stated quietly.
Why Vikram is Suspected to Have Crashed Into The Moon
Screens in mission control, which displayed data related to Vikram’s landing, do not present a great picture for the fate of the spacecraft.
Jason Davis, the digital editor at the Planetary Society, wrote in a post, “Those screens reported the spacecraft was 1.09 kilometers [0.6 miles] above the surface, traveling at a horizontal speed of about 48 meters per second [107 mph] and a vertical speed of about 60 meters per second [134 mph], just over 1 kilometer [0.62 mile] from the landing site”.
Astronomer Cees Bassa, who works with the LOFAR low-frequency radio telescope, was also monitoring the spacecraft’s descent on Friday when the situation appeared to deviate.
Another kink in the Doppler curve. The end of the rough braking phase. pic.twitter.com/4qPXBYllC4
— Cees Bassa (@cgbassa) September 6, 2019
Bassa said in his tweet that the data indicated that the lander “has crashed.”
Bassa tweeted, “After the rough braking phase the Doppler curve from @radiotelescoop shows some wiggles, and then, at 20:20:01UTC the signals disappeared”.
If he is correct and the spacecraft did crash, it’s presently unclear whether it toppled to the surface, rockets blazing, or simply went dead and fell.
Bassa said, “Knowledge of the altitude and velocity at the end of the rough braking phase should be able to tell if the loss of signal matches the time it takes to free fall to the surface”.
Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter positioned by NASA has the most powerful camera system for looking down at the moon. But it could take nearly a month for that team to release a photo of the possible crash-landing site.
There is also a possibility that Vikram’s loss of signal with mission control was a communications glitch. If the spacecraft did stick the landing on the lunar surface, India would become the fourth country to make a successful landing on the moon without damaging its spacecraft after Russia, US and China.
Not The First Moon-Landing Failure This Year
But if Vikram’s mission failed, however, it would be the second time a lunar-landing spacecraft has crashed into the moon this year.
Beresheet, Israel’s privately built lunar lander, slammed into the moon’s surface in April, seemingly because of a software glitch.
India’s lunar mission has been relatively low budget compared with other space missions. According to the Indian news website Business Today, the entire Chandryan2 mission cost the Indian government the equivalent of $142 million while the BBC cited a figure of $145 million.