India's Chandrayaan 2 came very close to a historic achievement before contact with lander Vikram was lost just 2.1 km above the Moon's surface. The snag occurred minutes after the module began the fine braking phase of its descent to the unexplored lunar South Pole. "This is Mission Control Centre. Vikram lander descent was as planned and normal performance was observed up to an altitude of 2.1 km. Subsequently, communication from the lander to ground stations was lost," ISRO chief K Sivan told a crowd of distraught scientists anxiously waiting for updates about the mission.
The data is being analysed, K Sivan said at the end of his announcement. The Indian space agency is now examining available information to ascertain what went wrong at the last minute with the soft landing of Vikram. The module was responsible for placing the rover Pragyan on the Moon as well as collecting crucial information about soil composition, atmosphere and seismic activities around its designated landing site.
With Vikram's successful descent to the Moon, India could have become the fourth country after the US, Russia and China to soft-land a craft on the lunar surface. It could have also been the first nation to place a lander on the yet undiscovered South Pole of the Moon.
Even as ISRO scientists seemed dejected at the setback to Chandrayaan 2, Prime Minister Narendra Modi lauded their efforts in the mission. He was present at Mission Operations Complex of at the ISRO Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC) in Bengaluru to witness the soft landing of Vikram on the lunar surface. "Life is full of ups and downs. This is no small achievement. The entire nation is proud of you. Hope for the best," the Prime Minister told the scientists. In a tweet later, PM Modi said: "India is proud of our scientists! They've given their best and have always made India proud. These are moments to be courageous, and courageous we will be!" "We remain hopeful and will continue working hard on our space programme," he added.
All is not lost though, as the Orbiter which ferried lander Vikram and rover Pragyan to the Moon's orbit remains functional. It carries eight science payloads, highest among the three modules of Chandrayaan 2, and will continue to conduct remote-sensing observations from a 100km orbit for one year.
The instruments on the Orbiter are meant to map the lunar terrain, examine the intensity of solar radiation, as well as examine the presence of major elements such as Magnesium, Aluminium, Silicon, Calcium, Titanium, Iron, and Sodium. It will also conduct a quantitative estimation of water-ice in the polar regions of the Moon.
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