India etched its name in space exploration history last month by becoming the first country to land a lunar mission, Chandrayaan-3, near the Moon’s south pole. The mission’s lander and rover, Vikram and Pragyaan, spent roughly 10 days in the region, collecting data and images for further analysis on Earth. As the lunar night descended, the duo was put into hibernation, with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) anticipating their revival around 22 September.
The movements and findings of the space vehicles were regularly updated by ISRO, stirring the interest of many Indians. Meanwhile, a section of the public queried the significance of these groundbreaking discoveries. To elucidate the importance of these findings, the BBC sought the expertise of Mila Mitra, a former NASA scientist and co-founder of a Delhi-based space education company, Stem and Space.
ISRO disclosed that Pragyaan had covered over 100 metres before being put to rest on 2 September. This is a notable achievement for the six-wheeled rover, which moves at a speed of 1cm per second. Even more significant, Mitra points out, is its ability to evade the numerous craters in the Moon’s south pole region. The rover features a special wheel mechanism, termed rocker bogie, which helps it navigate over uneven terrain. However, it would struggle to climb out of a deep crater, hence avoiding them is key.
Vikram, the lander, collected data from the lunar topsoil and up to 10cm beneath the surface, indicating a stark contrast in temperatures above and below the surface. The surface temperature was recorded at around 60°C, while just 80mm below the ground, it plunged to -10°C. The Moon is notorious for its extreme temperatures, with the equatorial region reaching a sweltering 120°C during the day and dipping to -130°C at night. However, this variance is significant, according to Mitra, as it suggests the lunar regolith, or soil, could be a superb insulator, potentially useful for constructing space colonies.
A laser detector mounted on the rover also detected the presence of numerous chemicals on the lunar surface, including aluminium, calcium, iron, chromium, titanium, manganese, silicon, and oxygen. However, the most noteworthy findings were related to sulphur. Mitra opines that sulphur’s presence is significant as it indicates the presence of water ice and could be beneficial for the growth of plants in a potential lunar habitat.
The Vikram lander also carries an instrument to measure vibrations from its experiments and those from the rover. ISRO reported that the Instrument for Lunar Seismic Activity (Ilsa) recorded an event of larger amplitude, suggesting it could be a natural occurrence such as a meteorite or asteroid hitting the surface, or a seismic event. If the latter, this would be the first Moonquake recorded since the 1970s.
In its last activity before hibernation, the Vikram lander carried out a ‘hop experiment’, where it was commanded to fire its engines, lift up by about 40cm, and land at a distance of 30-40cm. This successful experiment signifies that the spacecraft could be used in future missions for sample return or human missions. Thus, this short hop could indeed signify a giant leap for India’s future space plans.