India’s attempt to land on the moon went awry after scientists lost contact with the vehicle a mile from the surface, a setback to the country’s most-ambitious extraterrestrial adventure yet.
Dramatic scenes unfolded on live television Saturday morning as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and staff of the Indian Space Research Organisation in Bangalore reacted to the mission’s apparent failure. “Communication of the lander with the ground station was lost,” the organisation’s chairman Kailasavadivoo Sivan said.
Mr Modi, who has championed the mission as a sign of India’s technological sophistication and growing international clout, gave a conciliatory address.
“India is suffering but will have many more opportunities to rejoice,” he said. “We are full of confidence that when it comes to our space programme the best is yet to come…To our scientists, I want to say, ‘India is with you.’”
The $140m Chandrayaan-2 mission was to be the first to land on the previously unexplored south pole of the moon, and would have made India only the fourth country after the US, Russia and China to pull off a landing. Key to the mission’s aims was a search for water, which scientists say is crucial to any future human aspirations to inhabit the moon.
Chandrayaan-2 previously faced a setback when its launch in July was called off due to a technical snag with only an hour to spare before lift-off. The mission eventually took off a week later.
India’s space programme was founded in 1969. It has been celebrated for its cost effectiveness and for producing technology for domestic use, bolstering India’s meteorological and telecommunications capabilities. The former has been particularly important in helping to detect potential catastrophes like cyclones.
India’s extraterrestrial ambitions acquired more urgency over the past decade as China has also taken to space. China this year was the first to land on the far side of the moon and India in March showed off an anti-satellite missile programme that analysts said was designed in part as a deterrent to its neighbour and rival.
“Space has become one more domain where the terrestrial politics in Asia is playing out,” Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation think tank in New Delhi, said.
But India may have missed its opportunity to break ground in lunar exploration. The US, Russia and China have their own missions to the lunar south pole in the works starting from 2021, according to Gateway House, a think tank in Mumbai.
The region is of particular interest because of the possibility that it provides access to both water, hidden in craters, and sunlight, a potential energy source.
“If we’re going to have a sustained human presence on the moon, it’s probably going to be in that region,” said David Alexander, director of the Rice Space Institute in Houston. “You have the resources you need and basically continuous supply of sunlight for power.”