In a monumental leap for space exploration, India has successfully landed the first spacecraft on the moon’s south pole, overcoming the formidable challenges that led to prior crashes by itself and Russia in earlier missions. Achieving this feat on August 23, India has not only become the first nation to touch down at this strategic location but has also joined the prestigious league of nations to have ever landed on the moon. The accomplishment is a testament to the complexities of spaceflight, with landing on celestial bodies considered one of the most intricate aspects, and a first moon landing, particularly on the south pole, being even more challenging due to the permanent shadows that harbor ice.
This significant achievement comes on the heels of Russia’s crash landing at the same location, and four years after India’s maiden attempt at a lunar south pole landing ended in a crash. "Spaceflight is hard, and landing on another planetary surface is among the hardest things that we do in spaceflight. So it’s the hardest of the hard," says Robert Braun, head of space exploration at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Despite the countless minute factors that could lead to a failed landing, India has managed to navigate these hurdles, proving its mettle in the challenging arena of space exploration, especially when juxtaposed against the better-funded Russian program.
India Triumphs in Lunar Space Race, Lands First Robot on Moon’s South Pole
India has made history by becoming the first nation to successfully land a small robot on the moon’s south pole on August 23. This remarkable achievement is not only a first for India, but also a strategic victory in the moon exploration race, especially given prior failures by India and Russia at the same location.
Indian Triumph Amid Russian Failure
The successful landing comes just days after Russia’s failed attempt and four years following India’s previous unsuccessful effort at the lunar south pole. Robert Braun, head of space exploration at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, emphasized the complexity of the task, remarking, "Spaceflight is hard, and landing on another planetary surface is among the hardest things that we do in spaceflight."
Braun, who has an extensive record with NASA missions to Mars, including the ill-fated Mars Polar Lander, highlighted that landing failures are often due to a culmination of tiny errors, rather than lack of effort or support. The ambitious endeavor by India and Russia to land on the lunar south pole – a feat never achieved before – only amplified the inherent challenges.
Russian Ambition and The Lunar South Pole
Russia’s Luna-25 mission marked the country’s first moon landing attempt in decades and its first bid at the lunar south pole. This region holds particular interest due to its frozen-water reserves, which could potentially be converted into oxygen and hydrogen to fuel rockets for Mars missions.
Furthermore, a successful Luna-25 mission would have signified Russia’s resurgence as an independent deep-space power, following the European Space Agency’s withdrawal from the mission in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Challenges of a First Moon Landing
For India, this was its maiden moon landing, whereas for Russia, Luna-25 represented a new beginning, as it had been decades since its last lunar mission, Luna-24.
Braun noted that the lack of recent experience added to the difficulty. Landing on the moon requires precise calculations and robotic movements to launch, steer, and land the spacecraft, all while continuously assessing the rapidly approaching lunar surface. Any minor error, whether in hardware or software, can lead to catastrophic failure.
The Unique Hazards of The Lunar South Pole
The very features that make the lunar south pole desirable also add to its challenges. The region’s permanent shadows, which harbor water ice, can obscure visibility and make landing even more difficult.
Furthermore, the moon’s unpredictable terrain, laden with dust, rocks, and craters, can interact with the spacecraft, causing it to tip over or damage its instruments. Prior to India’s successful landing, the south pole was uncharted territory, adding another layer of complexity to the mission.
Conclusion and Correction
India’s triumph in landing on the moon’s south pole is a testament to the resilience and innovation of its space program. Despite previous failures, the nation has shown that it is possible to learn, adapt, and succeed in the challenging realm of space exploration.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Robert Braun’s title. He is head of space exploration at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, not head of a Space Exploration Center there.
This story has been updated. It was originally published on August 23, 2023.
India’s success in landing on the moon’s south pole sets a new precedent in the global space race. It demonstrates that even with less funding than some of its competitors, innovation, perseverance, and a willingness to learn from past failures can lead to extraordinary accomplishments. The moon’s south pole, with its potential resources for deep-space missions, is an increasingly important strategic target for space-faring nations. However, as India’s success and Russia’s failure both illustrate, it remains a challenging and risky endeavor.