Why India’s Lunar Landing was Challenging and Monumental

A picture of the moon taken by Chandrayaan-3 lander during Lunar Orbit Insertion on August 5, 2023. Image credit: ISRO taken via Reuters and WEF.

The Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) Chandrayaan-3 (translating to ‘Moon Vehicle-3’) landed on the south pole of the moon on the 23rd of August, 2023, making India the first country to do so. The south pole of the moon is sought after by all space-faring nations, and landing there marks a big achievement for India. While this accomplishment is being celebrated globally, not many are aware of the significance of this feat. Why does everyone want to land on this side of the moon? Why is it so difficult to do? What does this mean for the future of space exploration and space travel? 

The primary reason for landing on the south pole of the moon is due to the water.  As this article explains, this region of the lunar surface hardly receives sunlight due to the moon’s axial tilt, making it constantly cold and very effective at trapping ice, which never warms up enough to escape in its liquid or gaseous state. The presence of frozen water is helpful for a myriad of reasons. It can be used as drinking water for astronauts or as a coolant for spacecrafts and machinery. Furthermore, water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen molecules and can be split to produce oxygen gas that astronauts can use to breathe. Lastly, perhaps the most important use for lunar ice, water can be broken down into liquid H2 and O2. While that might sound a little pointless, those two liquids are commonly referred to by another name when used together: rocket fuel. Liquid hydrogen and oxygen can be used by rockets to refuel, making it viable to create lunar bases from which space missions can be launched. While this is a possibility only in the far future, it is a very real possibility. All these uses for lunar ice explain why countries want to get to the south pole, but why is it so difficult?

Image of LVM3-M4 Rocket carrying Chandrayaan-3 taken at launch. (Image credit: ISRO)

What we desire from the south pole of the moon is what also makes landing there difficult.  Lunar ice is slippery and uneven, making it a terrible landing site for a spacecraft. This region of the moon is also filled with craters and hills. Usually, probes work around this issue by using cameras to navigate away from geographical protuberances towards flat land, but this can’t be done properly on the dark side of the moon because it is completely shrouded from light. Moreover, signals from earth can’t reach a craft reliably, which means that the probe cannot be remotely controlled and monitored. A little bad luck can mean losing signal with the spacecraft and mission failure. Lack of sunlight also means that the craft cannot use solar power to indefinitely operate on the lunar surface. The craft must also be built to withstand the cold temperatures which can go as low as -250 degrees Celsius (-418 degrees Fahrenheit). Russia’s Luna-25 probe failed to land on the south pole of the moon just days before India. This is likely due to the multitude of challenges and limitations of landing in this region. Regardless, India managed to land in and collect data from this region. What can this accomplishment do for the endeavour of space travel?

Images of the lunar south pole’s surface taken during Chandrayaan-3’s descent. (Image credit: ISRO)

The data collected by the probe itself is largely irrelevant to the general populace. The probe collected data on temperatures across various depths, slight seismic activity and even detected sulphur molecules, according to a 2023 article from CNN. Aside from this data, India has shown the world that landing on the south pole is possible with current technology. Moreover, the Chandrayaan-3 mission only cost about 75 million USD. For context, NASA’s Artemis 1 rocket, which orbits the moon, cost about 13 billion USD over 25 years. This lunar mission’s most important objective was successful, which was to inspire the rest of the world. With future missions to the south pole being planned by the US and China such as the Artemis, Viper and Chang’e-7, India set an important milestone by being first to land on the dark side of the moon.

Recently, the lander was put to sleep for a period of 2 weeks after going into complete darkness. It was supposed to wake up on the 22nd of September, but it sadly seems to be dead. The Vikram lander was supposedly unable to tolerate the harsh conditions of the south pole for too long, according to the Indian Express (2023). Regardless, the mission achieved its purpose and collected valuable data. It is still considered to be a massive success for India and humanity.

This article was edited by Simon Thill and Emi Krishnamurthy.