Chandrayaan-2 continues to orbit the Moon; But what went wrong with the Vikram lander?

Vikram did land, but it wasn’t soft enough

  • The Chandrayaan-2 weighed 3.8 tons and was capable of carrying 14 scientific experiments. The orbiter is also responsible for imaging the Moon’s surface and mapping corresponding areas. The lander itself weighed 1,471 kgs and could resist small-scale earthquakes. Lastly, the rover weighed 27 kgs and was equipped with cameras and instruments to analyse the surface rocks.
  • On September 6, everything happened as planned until the lander was 2.1 km above the surface. Then, it suddenly lost communication with ISRO and mission control couldn’t establish a new link. Though, it was able to see that the lander had gone off-course and wouldn’t land at its designated spot. This is exactly why finding wreckage, later on, became a hassle.
  • In the beginning, there were hopes that the spacecraft could’ve landed successfully and there’s just an issue with the communication array. After multiple attempts, hopes of finding an intact module on the surface was near to zero.
  • Jitendra Singh, minister of state for the Department of Space, said that the Vikram lander “hard landed” on the moon because of a problem with the lander’s braking thrusters. “The first phase of descent was performed nominally from an altitude of 30 km to 7.4 km above the Moon’s surface,” he said in a written note to the Parliament. The lander slowed from 1,683 meters per second to 146 meters per second during that time.
  • “During the second phase of descent, the reduction in velocity was more than the designed value,” he added. “Due to this deviation, the initial conditions at the start of the fine braking phase were beyond the designed parameters.” Hence Vikram hard-landed on the surface, within 500 metres of the designated landing spot.
  • ISRO acknowledged the lander likely hit the lunar surface at a high velocity, “beyond its survivability.”

Why did it take so much time to find the crash debris?

NASA was able to locate the wreckage in the first week of December. However, ISRO claims they had found the debris long back and the same was declared previously on their website. However, no detailed pictures or evidence was attached.

  • When the Vikram lander crashed, only two spacecraft were orbiting the Moon — NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and ISRO’s orbiter.
  • ISRO didn’t share any mission details with NASA, leaving the latter to go through billions of pixels of images to find the wreckage. Noah Petro, the project scientist for LRO, told Space.com, “Until we know more details about where Vikram is, it’s going to be very hard for us to find it.”
  • Vikram didn’t land at the designated spot. Hence the surrounding regions had to be processed, taking more time. The LRO made its first pass over the region on September 17 and all corresponding data was released to the public on September 26.
  • Amateurs around the world swift through this data dump, trying to find a few pixels that could clear the air and reveal the wreckage. Shanmuga Subramanian was officially credited by NASA for finding the crash debris. The Chennai-based technologist discovered debris about 750 m from the main crash site of the lander.
  • In an e-mailed response to the Economic Times, Subramanian said he was hooked to the images released by NASA and kept scanning it for days on end. “Initially there were a lot of false positives I got corrected by Twitterati and one of the tweets led me to a Reddit forum where they had the exact intended landing location and the path of Vikram..”
  • Later, the LRO made a couple of more passes over the region and better lighting conditions on the surface ensured better photographic data. After stacking and comparing pictures from various passes, it was established that the wreckage was found.

How did the world respond to India’s unsuccessful attempt?

  • Tom Soderstrom, chief innovation and technology officer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said failures are a part of space exploration. And, he’s correct. The US and Russia have spent billions on unsuccessful attempts, ultimately learning and improvising.
  • Soderstrom told IANS that landing a rover is a very difficult thing. “So we get super nervous every single time. We never know if it’s going to work there, one little thing goes wrong and the whole thing is expected to fail,” he added.
  • The loss of the Vikram lander took place less than five months after Israel’s first lunar lander, Beresheet also crashed during landing. Authorities attributed a computer glitch during the lander’s descent that led it to crash.
  • Lastly, according to Soderstrom, the key here is for “us to share all that learning so that more people can participate in the endeavour to reach the next frontier in space”.

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Serving communities on the intersection of technology, indie music and culture, the warp core is a think tank founded by technology journalist Sahil Mohan Gupta