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India lands first mission on Moon - first to reach south pole
India lands first mission on Moon - first to reach south pole
By Aishwarya KUMAR
Bengaluru, India (AFP) Aug 23, 2023

India on Wednesday became the first nation to land a craft near the Moon's south pole, a historic triumph for the world's most populous nation and its ambitious, cut-price space programme.

The unmanned Chandrayaan-3, which means "Mooncraft" in Sanskrit, touched down at 6:04 pm India time (1234 GMT) as mission control technicians cheered wildly and embraced their colleagues.

Its landing comes days after a Russian probe crashed in the same region and four years since the previous Indian attempt failed at the last moment.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi smiled broadly and waved an Indian flag on a live broadcast to announce the mission's success as a triumph that extended beyond his country's borders.

"On this joyous occasion I would like to address the people of the world," said Modi from the sidelines of the BRICS diplomatic summit in South Africa.

"India's successful moon mission is not just India's alone," he added. "This success belongs to all of humanity."

The Chandrayaan-3 mission has captivated public attention since launching nearly six weeks ago in front of thousands of cheering spectators.

Politicians staged Hindu prayer rituals to wish for the mission's success and schoolchildren followed the final moments of the landing from live broadcasts in classrooms.

Chandrayaan-3 took much longer to reach the Moon than the Apollo missions in the 1960s and 1970s, which arrived in a matter of days.

India used rockets much less powerful than the ones the United States used back then, meaning the probe had to orbit the Earth several times to gain speed before embarking on its month-long journey.

The lander, Vikram, which means "valour" in Sanskrit, detached from its propulsion module last week and has been sending images of the Moon's surface since entering lunar orbit on August 5.

Now that Vikram has landed, a solar-powered rover will explore the surface and transmit data to Earth over its two-week lifespan.

- Ambitious programme -
India is closing in on milestones set by global space powers such as the United States and Russia, conducting many of its missions at much lower price tags.

The South Asian nation has a comparatively low-budget space programme, but one that has grown considerably in size and momentum since it first sent a probe to orbit the Moon in 2008.

The latest mission has a cost of $74.6 million -- far lower than those of other countries, and a testament to India's frugal space engineering.

Experts say India can keep costs low by copying and adapting existing technology, and thanks to an abundance of highly skilled engineers who earn a fraction of their foreign counterparts' wages.

In 2014, India became the first Asian nation to put a craft into orbit around Mars and is slated to launch a three-day crewed mission into Earth's orbit by next year.

Wednesday's landing had been eagerly awaited by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) after the frustrating failure of its previous mission at the last hurdle in 2019.

Back then, mission control lost contact with the Chandrayaan-2 lunar module moments before its slated landing.

- 'Very, very important' -
Former ISRO chief K. Sivan told AFP that India's efforts to explore the relatively unmapped lunar south pole would make a "very, very important" contribution to scientific knowledge.

Only Russia, the United States and China have previously achieved controlled landings on the Moon.

Russia launched a lunar probe in August -- its first in nearly half a century.

If successful, it would have beaten Chandrayaan-3 by a matter of days to become the first mission from any nation to make a controlled landing around the south pole.

But Luna-25 crashed on Saturday after an unspecified incident as it prepared to descend.

India became the first nation to successfully land a craft on the Moon's south pole on Wednesday, the latest milestone in a renewed push for lunar exploration that has drawn in both the world's top space powers and new players.

New Delhi's attempt came days after the crash-landing on the Moon of Russia's Luna-25 probe.

Here is the latest on various missions to the celestial body:

- India's Chandrayaan-3 -
Chandrayaan-3, which means "Mooncraft" in Sanskrit, follows India's successful launch of a probe into lunar orbit in 2008 and a failed lunar landing in 2019.

The mission launched in mid-July and orbited Earth several times to build up the necessary speed for its journey.

Following Wednesday's successful landing, a solar-powered rover will explore the surface of the relatively unmapped lunar south pole and transmit data to Earth over its two-week lifespan.

The mission is the latest milestone in an ambitious but relatively cheap space programme that saw India become the first Asian nation to put a craft into orbit around Mars in 2014.

The Indian Space Research Organisation is also slated to launch a three-day crewed mission into Earth's orbit by next year.

- Russia's Luna -
The launch of Luna-25 on August 11 was the first such Russian mission in almost 50 years and marked the beginning of Moscow's new lunar project.

On August 16, the lander was successfully placed in the Moon's orbit but three days later, it "ceased to exist following a collision with the Moon's surface", space agency Roscomos said.

It had been set to land on the Moon's surface and remain there for one year to collect samples and analyse soil.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been working to strengthen space cooperation with China after ties with the West broke down following the start of Moscow's invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Moscow had hoped to build on the legacy of the Soviet-era Luna programme, marking a return to independent lunar exploration in the face of financial troubles and corruption scandals at its space programme.

- China's great leap -
China is pursuing plans to send a crewed mission to the Moon by 2030 and build a base there.

The world's second-largest economy has invested billions of dollars in its military-run space programme in a push to catch up with the United States and Russia.

China was the third country to place humans in orbit in 2003 and its Tiangong rocket is the crown jewel of its space programme, which has also landed rovers on Mars and the Moon.

The unmanned Chang'e-4 rocket landed on the far side of the Moon in 2019. Another robot mission to the near side raised the Chinese flag there in 2020.

That Moon landing brought rock and soil samples back to Earth, the first time that has been done in more than four decades.

- NASA's Artemis -
NASA's Artemis 3 mission is set to return humans to the Moon in 2025.

Under the Artemis program, NASA is planning a series of missions of increasing complexity to return to the Moon and build up a sustained presence so it can develop and test technologies for an eventual journey to Mars.

Artemis 1 flew an uncrewed spacecraft around the Moon in 2022.

Artemis 2, planned for November 2024, will do the same with crew on board.

NASA sees the Moon as a pitstop for missions to Mars and has done a deal with Finnish mobile firm Nokia to set up a 4G network there.

However it has said the Artemis 3 mission may not land humans on the Moon. That will depend on whether certain key elements are finished in time.

Elon Musk's firm SpaceX won the contract for a landing system based on a version of its prototype Starship rocket, which remains far from ready.

An orbital test flight of the uncrewed Starship ended in a dramatic explosion in April.

- New players -
Recent technological progress has reduced the cost of space missions and opened the way for new players in the public and private sectors to get involved.

But getting to the Moon is not an easy task. Israeli non-profit organisation SpaceIL launched its Beresheet lunar lander in 2019 but it crashed.

And in April this year, Japan's ispace was the latest company to try, and fail, at the historic bid to put a private lunar lander on the Moon.

Two US companies, Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, are set to try later in the year.

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