India’s Chandrayaan-3 reached lunar orbit today enroute to a landing in less than three weeks. It is the country’s second attempt to land on the Moon. The success rate for small lunar landers is quite poor so far, but hope is high the tide will turn. As many as five more lunar landers are planned for launch this year from Russia, Japan and the United States as interest in the Moon skyrockets.
The Indian Space Research Organisation launched Chandrayaan-3 on July 14. It has been slowly making its way to the Moon by periodically raising its elliptical orbit around Earth and then firing its engine for trans-lunar injection until captured by the Moon’s gravity. Now in an elliptical orbit around the Moon, it will slowly lower its orbit until properly positioned to separate the Vikram lander and Pragyan rover for descent to the surface. This type of journey requires less propellant than direct trajectories that take only days instead of weeks to cross cislunar space.
“MOX, ISTRAC, this is Chandrayaan-3. I am feeling lunar gravity 🌖”
Chandrayaan-3 has been successfully inserted into the lunar orbit.
A retro-burning at the Perilune was commanded from the Mission Operations Complex (MOX), ISTRAC, Bengaluru.
The next… pic.twitter.com/6T5acwiEGb
— ISRO (@isro) August 5, 2023
Landing at the Moon’s South Pole is planned for August 23 followed by 14 Earth days (1 lunar day) of operations. The solar powered spacecraft are not designed to survive the 14-day lunar night.
India’s first attempt at a lunar lander/rover in 2019, Chandrayaan-2, failed in the last moments when communications were lost.
The Chandrayaan spacecraft and others in the small satellite class are becoming increasingly popular even though none have succeeded so far.
The Israeli non-profit SpaceIL’s Beresheet failed in 2019 a few months before Chandrayaan-2. In late 2022, Japan’s tiny OMONTENASHI (Outstanding MOon exploration TEchnologies demonstrated by NAno Semi-Hard Impactor) lander, one of the 10 cubesats launched by NASA’s Space Launch System rocket as part of the Artemis I mission, failed. Earlier this year, a Japanese commercial company, ispace, lost contact with its lander, HAKUTO-R M1, just before touchdown due to a software error. HAKUTO-R M1 was delivering the United Arab Emirates’ 10-kilogram Rashid rover and a baseball-like “transformer” rover developed by Japan’s space agency, JAXA, and the toy company Takara Tomy.
The Soviet Union, the United States, and China are the only countries to successfully land robotic spacecraft on the Moon — Soviet Luna and Lunokhod landers and rovers, U.S. Surveyor landers, and Chinese Chang’e landers and Yutu rovers — all built with the more robust resources of large government space agencies.
The United States is the only country to land astronauts on the Moon — six Apollo crews between 1969 and 1972. Although it never sent a robotic rover, the later Apollo crews drove rovers to explore features further from their landing sites.
The Soviet Union abandoned lunar exploration after Luna-24 in 1976, but Russia is getting ready to resume with the launch of Luna-25, or Luna-Glob, very soon. A date has not been formally announced, but is widely expected this coming Friday, August 11. Anatoly Zak of RussianSpaceWeb.com shows the launch time as 02:10:57 Moscow Time, which would be 7:10:57 pm Eastern Daylight Time on August 10.
Russian space enthusiatist Katya Pavlushchenko is tweeting posts made by Roscosmos on Telegram with updates on Luna-25’s progress towards launch.
— Katya Pavlushchenko (@katlinegrey) August 2, 2023
More photos from Roscosmos. pic.twitter.com/n0kstjiSpJ
— Katya Pavlushchenko (@katlinegrey) August 2, 2023
#Luna25 with Fregat upper stage encapsulated under the fairing and ready for the assembly with Soyuz 2.1b rocket. Roscosmos still talks about the launch “in August”. I suppose they’re going to keep the launch date in secret even when the spacecraft is halfway to the Moon. 🤣 pic.twitter.com/qxgzxii4mh
— Katya Pavlushchenko (@katlinegrey) August 4, 2023
Like Chandrayaan-3 and the other spacecraft launched in recent years, Luna-25 is headed to the Moon’s South Pole where measurements by other spacecraft indicate the presence of water in permanently shadowed regions.
The theory is that water was deposited by comets impacting the Moon over the eons and, shielded from sunlight, remains embedded in the regolith. The discovery of water and the U.S.-led Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon together with international and commercial partners is fueling a “Water Rush” not unlike the American Gold Rush of the 1800s for everyone eager to exploit lunar resources to support human outposts, although the amount of water and how difficult it will be to extract are unknown. These robotic spacecraft are part of the effort to find those answers.
Luna-25 is a lander only and more reminiscent of its forebears of the 1960s and 1970s than the “New Space” Chandrayaan-3 and its counterparts.
Russia and China have their own program to send humans to the Moon, the International Lunar Research Station, also focused on the South Pole. Russia’s financial situation may preclude large-scale involvement, but if successful Luna-25 could at least serve as a marker of its interest and reminder of its legacy. Soviet lunar probes had a high success rate and three returned samples to Earth. The 1973 Lunokhod-2 rover held the off-world record for distance traversed for more than 40 years, broken only by NASA’s Mars Opportunity rover in 2014.
Western sources are somewhat skeptical if Luna-25 will succeed, however, considering funding challenges in the Russian space program that worsened after its invasion of Ukraine. As Zak reports, plans for Luna-25 and other Russian lunar missions date back to the late 1990s and promised launch dates have come and gone with regularity. With the spacecraft now encapsulated in its fairing, though, this time seems like a sure bet even if Roscosmos hasn’t announced the date.
Just two weeks after the expected Luna-25 launch, Japan will make its third attempt at a lunar landing. JAXA’s Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM), another in the small spacecraft category, will launch as a ride-share with JAXA’s x-ray telescope, XRISM on August 26. Developed by JAXA’s Institute for Space and Astronomical Science, SLIM follows JAXA’s OMONTENASHI cubesat (a VERY tiny satellite) and ispace’s HAKUTO-R M1.
ispace was the first commercial company to attempt a lunar landing and is not deterred by the failure. It has two more planned for launch in 2024 and 2025.
NASA has embraced the idea of partnering with commercial companies to send small lunar landers as part of the Artemis program. The Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) project uses Public-Private Partnerships where NASA buys services from companies to deliver science and technology experiments to the lunar surface. NASA provides money and experiments, while the companies provide the spacecraft and launch vehicles and must find other customers to close the business case.
NASA wants to launch two CLPS missions a year. The first were supposed to launch in 2021, but have been delayed for a variety of reasons. At the moment, three are on the books to launch this year, one from Astrobotic and two from Intuitive Machines (IM), with five more between 2024 and 2026.
Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander was expected to be first. Scheduled for launch on May 4 on the inaugural flight of United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket, a problem with Vulcan’s Centaur upper stage meant another delay. ULA hopes Vulcan will be ready in the fourth quarter of this year.
IM will launch its Nova-C landers on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets. The first IM launch was supposed to happen this summer, but was delayed to at least the third quarter for more spacecraft testing. Whether IM will get a second one off this year seems iffy. The company may provide an update when it reports its second quarter 2023 financial earnings on August 14.
One thing that’s sure is that the level of interest in the Moon, specifically its South Pole, is rampant among many nations and companies that see opportunities there. The United States led the development of the Artemis Accords, a set of principles for countries to work together effectively on the Moon. Argentina just became the 28th country to join.
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