India: Fourth on the Moon, First near Lunar South Pole

Collage: frames from ISRO's YouTube coverage of Chandrayaan-3 Vikram successful landing near Lunar south pole. (August 23, 2023)
India’s Vikram lander successful descent and touchdown near Lunar South Pole. (August 23, 2023)

India became the fourth nation to land on Earth’s Moon this week. And the first to land near the Lunar south pole. This is a very big deal.

So, in a different way, was the “abnormal situation” that turned Russia’s Luna-25 lander into an impactor.

Humanity is returning to the Moon. I think this is a good thing.

I woke up in time to watch ISRO’s coverage of Wednesday’s historic touchdown near Manzinus crater. Folks in mission control showed more enthusiasm than I did, here in central Minnesota. But they’re all younger than I am: so that’s no surprise.

I was and am delighted at ISRO’s successful Lunar landing. And even more pleased about the Indian Prime Minister’s upbeat words.

I’m not the only one who’s excited. India’s successful landing is international news:

Roscosmos, Luna-25, and Russia; Briefly

Equestrian statue of Peter I of Russia in Saint Petersburg: symbol of the city. From CIA World Factbook, used w/o permission.The degree to which today’s “Russia” is distinct from the old “Soviet Union” is — another topic.

The Soviet space program was rebranded as Roscosmos in the early 1990s, and is an organization I’m profoundly glad isn’t part of my personal experience.

Russian lander crashing into the moon may have broader implications for space race, experts say
Jackie Wattles, CNN (August 22, 2023)

“… ‘Russia’s Cold War legacy will be just that — a legacy — unless they can actually do this themselves,’ said Victoria Samson, the Washington office director for Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes the peaceful exploration of outer space….”

“… More than a dozen other countries also have plans for moon missions in the coming years, including the United States’ ambitious Artemis III, which could land astronauts on the lunar surface as soon as 2025.

“‘I think it … speaks to how much the cost of space exploration has dropped,’ Samson said. ‘It’s still not cheap by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s gotten a little more reasonable. … I think that’s why more countries are able to (attempt) it.’…”

Folks working for Roscosmos have not been having a good time. The outfit has been re-organized and underfunded several times since the Soviet Union fizzled.

Having someone decide that both restarting the defunct Luna program and aiming for a south polar landing did not help.

“…Because orbital dynamics make the south pole difficult to reach, it hasn’t been as deeply explored as other areas. That gives Russia and every other nation with lunar ambitions a key reason to go: There is clear scientific — and strategic — interest.

“…But [Duke University’s Space Diplomacy Lab founding member, Robert] Pearson questioned why Russia chose to head straight for the south pole for its first lunar mission in nearly 50 years.

“‘All they had to do was land (somewhere on the moon) and they would have shown the world that they were in the space race,’ Pearson said of Russia. ‘They took a desperate measure — in my opinion — when they should have picked a safer option.’…”
Jackie Wattles, CNN (August 22, 2023)

There’s quite a bit going on in that CNN article. For one thing, the “experts” had names. It’s been quite a while since anonymous “experts” became a news media embarrassment, which isn’t what I was talking about.

One point I wanted to make is that landing on the Moon is anything but easy, particularly when the spacecraft has to pass safely over the polar regions.

Another, and this is why I dragged the Russian effort into my look at Chandrayaan-3’s Vikram landing, is that we’re living in the early 21st century. Not the decades between World War II and 1991.1 Things have changed. A lot.

But not everything.

“…The Sky is Not the Limit”

ISRO illustration showing path Chandrayaan 3 took to the Moon. Via Sky and Telescope, used w/o permission.
Chandrayaan-3’s path to the Moon. ISRO via Sky & Telescope, used w/o permission.

I’d planned on talking about Chandrayaan-3’s design, particularly the systems that piloted it down to a safe landing.

But I didn’t find descriptions with the sort of detail I like. I did find pictures that show what’s where on the propulsion module, lander, and rover.

Problem is, ISRO is part of India’s government: and someone decided that their intellectual property rights required detailed discussions. I’m pretty sure that what I had in mind comes under “fair use” definitions, but I’m not sure.

So I’ll put links to resources on the ISRO and Wikipedia websites, and leave it at that.2

If I knew more about Indian law, culture and customs, then maybe I’d realize that using those ISRO illustrations was okay. But I don’t. So I’m playing it safe. Moving along.

“…This Success Belongs to All of Humanity”

From ISRO: first surface image received from Chandrayaan-3's Vikram lander. (August 2023)
First image Chandrayaan-3’s Vikram, after safe landing. (August 23, 2023) ISRO via Sky and Telescope.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi joined the ISRO team via video conference in time to watch Chandrayaan-3’s successful landing.

I’m pretty sure he had remarks prepared for an unsuccessful event. But Vikram touched down, safely and smoothly. So here’s part of what Modi said:

“Our moon mission is based on human-centric approach. Therefore, this success belongs to all of humanity”
PM joins ISRO team via VC to witness landing of Chandrayaan 3“, Prime Minister’s Office, Press Information Bureau, Government of India (August 23, 2023)

“Time is not far when the children would say ‘Chanda Mama ek tour ke’ i.e. the moon is only a tour away”
“India is proving again and again that the sky is not the limit”
PM joins ISRO team via VC to witness landing of Chandrayaan 3“, Admin,
Narendra Modi (August 23, 2023)

I know: both sources have the same title. I don’t know why, but that’s how it was on the government of India website, so that’s what I’m showing here. There’s more, by the way, particularly on Narendra Modi’s page.

NASA photo: plaque on Apollo 11's Lunar Module Eagle descent stage; bearing signatures of Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and U.S. President Richard M. Nixon. 'Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind' (text in all caps) (1969)My notes from the video conference have different words for that “…belongs to all of humanity” quote.

Probably because I’m an American, and remember what’s on the Apollo 11 plaque: “…We came in peace for all mankind”.

Apollo 11’s slogan echoes part of the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act:3

National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 (Unamended)
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
[Public Law #85-568, 72 Stat., 426. Signed by the President on July 29, 1958]


Sec. 102. (a) The Congress hereby declares that it is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind….”

I’m not virtue signalling for my country’s self-described best and brightest, so I’ll skip the conventional bitter self-recriminations.

I don’t know where Prime Minister Modi’s “…this success belongs to all of humanity” phrase comes from. Maybe there’s something in India’s history that parallels that 1958 U.S. federal statute.

But it’s nice, hearing echoes from one of my country’s better moments.

“… ‘The Moon is Only a Tour Away'”

NASA's photo map: successful Lunar landings on the near side. (2023) via BBC News, used w/o permission.
Successful Lunar landings: NASA map showing Moon’s near side, mentioning a successful farside landing.

I’ll say it again. India’s successful Lunar landing was and is a very big deal.

Just getting a spacecraft to the moon is a noteworthy accomplishment. Although not as much as it was, back in the 1950s.

Back then, just hitting the Moon with an impactor probe was a big deal. Take my country’s Ranger program, for example. The first two didn’t get off Earth. Of the next four, all had mission-ending equipment failures and two missed the Moon entirely.

I haven’t heard news about Roscosmos since Luna-25’s alternatively-successful landing. And I hope that Yury Borisov doesn’t experience a fatal accident, like another Russian whose behavior was inconvenient for the powers that be. Which is yet another topic.

Anyway, exploration of the Moon peaked in the 1960s, went off the radar in the 1980s, and got its second wind in the 1990s.

DecadeLunar Missions LaunchedSponsors
1950s13USA, USSR
1960s63USA, USSR
1970s23Japan, USA, USSR
1990s7Japan, USA
2000s12China, ESA, India, USA
2010s12China, private, USA
2020s19China, Italy, Japan, Korea, private, Russia, UAE, USA
(Source: Lists of missions to the Moon, Wikipedia. (August 23, 2023))

The 1980s weren’t exactly a “lost decade”, since we’d collected massive quantities of data by that time. And I am not going to get distracted by a history of Lunar research.

One thing that’s new about the current wave of Lunar missions is both the number of different countries involved and an increasing number of private-sector outfits.4

Robert Goddard, Opel-RAK, and Missed Opportunities: Another Digression

Nagasaki City Office's photo, 'Memorial Service at the Ruins of Urakami Cathedral (November 23, 1945)' via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.
Urukami Roman Catholic Cathedral, Nagasaki, Memorial service. (November 23, 1945)

Max Volier's rocket-propelled aircraft concepts. (ca. 1920s)Private-sector spaceflight is another rabbit hole I’ll (mostly) leave for another time, but here’s a twenty-five cent tour.

Which I see is now a fifty-cent tour. Huh. Inflation, I suppose. In my father’s day it would have been a nickel tour, and I’m wandering off-topic. Again.

In an ideal world, the decades leading up to 1914 would have seen European leaders accept that the 18th century was over: and not setting up interlocking treaties which pretty much guaranteed something like the First World War.

But this is not an ideal world.

One assassination triggered a global war. When it was over, upwards of 17,000,000 folks had been killed; and rulers of the winning side decided that punishing the losers, particularly Germany, was a good idea. Which it was, if they wanted to go through the same thing again.

The New York Times editorial, 'His Plan is Not Original;' insisting that rockets need air to push against, so they can't possibly work in space. (January 13, 1920) via timesmachine.nytimes.comAnyway, a professor on one side of the Atlantic flew the first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926 and was roundly ridiculed for imagining that rockets could work in space.

Meanwhile, on the other side, a division of Opel, Opel-RAK, was experimenting with rocket-propelled land and air vehicles.

Then the Great Depression started, Americans got fed up with Prohibition, Germans got fed up with reparations, and a few years later survivors were digging out from occasionally-radioactive debris.

Somewhere along the line we forgot that individuals and businesses had been doing basic research and development for first-generation spacecraft.

Then outfits like Scaled Composites and SpaceX started making headlines:5 giving some serious thinkers conniptions.

I don’t see a problem with folks who aren’t government employees developing new technologies and services. And that’s — you guessed it — yet again more topics.

LVM3, Chandrayaan-3 —

ISRO's illustration: LVM3 launch vehicle and Chandrayaan-3 Lunar probe. Via BBC News, used w/o permission.
Indian Space Research Organization illustration: LVM3 launch vehicle and Chandrayaan-3.

Chandrayaan-3: India’s lunar lander Vikram searches for safe Moon landing spot
Geeta Pandey, BBC News (August 21, 2023)

India’s space agency has released images of the far side of the Moon as its third lunar mission attempts to locate a safe landing spot on the little-explored south pole.

“The pictures have been taken by Vikram, Chandrayaan-3’s lander, which began the last phase of its mission on Thursday.

“Vikram, which carries a rover in its belly, is due to land on 23 August….”

India’s LVM3, Launch Vehicle Mark-3, used to be called GSLV Mk III: Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III. It’s a higher-payload version of the older GSLV.

It can lift 22,000 pounds, 10,000 kilograms, to Low Earth orbit; or 8,800 pounds, 4,000 kilograms, to a Geostationary transfer orbit. That makes it a medium-lift launch vehicle, at least by NASA standards.

ISRO’s LVM3’s main job is putting communications satellites in geosynchronous orbit; but it’s been used for the Chandrayaan-2 and -3 missions, and is slated for a crewed version of their Gaganyaan space station.

One more item. ISRO says that “Chandrayaan” means Moon (Chandra) and yaan (vehicle) in Sanskrit and Hindi.6

I checked with Google Translate — which says Moon in Hindi is चंद्रमा, chandrama, and vehicle is वाहन, vaahan; in Sanskrit शशांक and वाहनं.

I figure folks who actually speak a language are more reliable translators than an online auto-translate function, so I’ll go with ISRO’s version.

Which, finally, gets me to “Vikram”, the Chandrayaan lander’s name.

— and Vikram Sarabhai

ISRO/PRL photo: Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad; research institute involved in astronomy and astrophysics, Solar physics, planetary science and exploration, space and atmospheric sciences, geosciences, theoretical physics, and more.
Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad.

Folks at ISRO named their moon mission’s lander after Vikram Sarabhai.

He’s from a family that figured in India’s independence movement, became a physicist and astronomer, got India’s space research and nuclear power started — those, I gather, are the main points.

It’s as if one of Thomas Jefferson’s kids founded Fermilab, jump-started NASA — and I knew I forgot something — Vikram Sarabhai also founded India’s Physical Research Laboratory. That was in 1947.

Small wonder folks in India and elsewhere think highly of him. So far, his name’s on a lunar crater (Sarabhai), a rocket engine (Vikas), a privately-built rocket (Vikram S) and the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre. Maybe more: those are just examples I found.

And, of course, the Vikram Lunar lander. Which, last I checked, has sent back video of the mission’s Pragyan rover “moonwalking” onto the surface.7

Chandrayaan-3 and Smart Robots

The Tribune: 'An illustration showing ISRO's Chandrayaan-3 after the orbit of Landing Module was successfully reduced to 25 km x 134 km. PTI (Press Trust of India)'
PTI illustration: ISRO’s Chandrayaan-3 after Landing Module reduced its orbit to 25 km x 134 km.

‘Welcome, buddy!’ — Contact established between Chandrayaan-2 orbiter and Chandrayaan-3 lander module
PTI, Tribune News Service, The Tribune (August 21, 2023)

“ISRO on Monday said a two-way communication between the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter and Chandrayaan-3’s Lunar Module has been established.

“‘ “Welcome, buddy!” Ch-2 orbiter formally welcomed Ch-3 LM. Two-way communication between the two is established. MOX has now more routes to reach the LM,’ the national space agency said in a post on ‘X’.

“ISRO said on Sunday the lander module of Chandrayaan-3, the third lunar mission of India, is expected to touch down on the surface of the Moon around 6.04 pm on August 23….”

This is where I was going to talk about Chandrayaan-3’s control system. But it’s been one of those weeks: topped off by a power outage Friday afternoon. My taking more time than I maybe should have, trying to find detailed information, didn’t help.

So here’s a very abbreviated version.

Chandrayaan-3 includes upgrades from the Chandryaan-2 lander. It’s got four variable-thrust steerable thrusters, but not Chandryaan-2’s fifth constant-thrust unit. The Chandryaan-3 lander’s four legs are beefier than Chandrayaan-2’s.

Maybe the Chandrayaan-3 lander’s Laser Doppler Velocimeter (LDV) is something new, maybe not. I wasn’t able to pin down that detail.

In any case, the LDV tells the lander’s AI which way it’s pointed on all three axes. “Velocimeter” in the name strongly suggests that it tells the AI how fast it’s going, too.8

Calling Home

WION: 'A Hindu priest performs a special prayer for the success of the Chandrayaan-3 mission next to a model of the spacecraft LVM3-M4 used to launch it, during a religious function in Kolkata on August 20, 2023. Photograph:(AFP)'
AFP photo: a Hindu priest performs a special prayer for the success of the Chandrayaan-3 mission next to a model of the spacecraft LVM3-M4. (August 20, 2023)

How will communication link between Chandrayaan-2 orbiter and Chandrayaan-3 lander help ISRO?
Sidharth MP, WION (August 21, 2023)

“The distance between the Earth and Moon is more than 238,855 miles (384,400 km), it could take approximately 2.6 seconds for two-way radio communication to travel that far. That’s the kind of lag that the ISRO Mission Operations team at the Mission Operations Complex (MOX) at ISRO Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC), Bengaluru, would be facing while transmitting and receiving signals to and from the Chandrayaan-3 lander that’s circling the Moon.

“Given that India has the advantage of having two crafts—Chandrayaan-2 orbiter and Chandrayaan-3 propulsion module—circling the Moon, ISRO would be using one of them as a backup/emergency communication link.

“ISRO has designed and developed the Chandrayaan-3 ‘Vikram’ lander in a way that permits the lander craft to directly communicate with the stations back on Earth. In fact, the 26-kg Pragyan rover would also be depending on the lander craft for all its communication with the ground stations back on Earth….”

That two-and-half-second delay is why having a smart lander matters.

JPL/NASA's Figure 6. Mars 2020 flight system in the Launch / Cruise Configuration. (2014-2017) used w/o permission.Setting down, softly, on an unprepared field means that there’s no time for a controller with a joystick back on earth to see a hazard and steer away from it.

I talked a bit about that sort of thing a couple years back, in reference to NASA’s Mars 2020 mission.9

Again, I couldn’t find much detail on the Chandrayaan-3 mission’s control systems. Maybe I was looking in the wrong places. I’ve been rummaging through NASA and related websites long enough to know my way around. And that’s still another topic.

Space Missions, Prayer, and Being Catholic

Times of India: Swaminarayan Temple in Kingsbury, London, organised a hawan for successful landing of Chandrayaan-3
Swaminarayan Temple in Kingsbury, London, had a hawan for successful landing of Chandrayaan-3.

I don’t remember reading about Americans getting together to pray for the success of Apollo 11, New Horizons, or other missions.

Maybe it’s due to my country’s odd attitudes about science and religion, a decision by mainstream news media that such events weren’t newsworthy, or something else.

In any case, folks in at least two places were praying for the success of Chandrayaan-3.10

So how come I, as an American and a Christian, am not having fits over a hawan in Kingsbury and a Hindu priest’s prayer next to a model of the spacecraft LVM3-M4?

Well, partly it’s because the rabid radio preachers of my youth encouraged a strong distaste for (self?)-righteous rage.

But mostly it’s because I’m a Catholic, and take my faith seriously.

I became a Catholic because I’m a Christian, and finally realized who currently holds the authority our Lord gave Peter. I’m a Christian because I’m convinced that Jesus is — who he said he is.

Now, about folks who prayed for the success of Chandrayaan-3? The ones I read about weren’t Christians, but like I said, I’m a Catholic.

Recognizing Divisions, Accepting “Us”

Sporki~commonswiki's (?) photo taken during World Youth Day, Rome. (2000) via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permissionThere are divisions within humanity.

But I do not see humanity as “us and them”.

Since I’m a Catholic, I recognize divisions, but see us as — us. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 839-845)

“…Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things,[Acts 17:2528]) and as Saviour wills that all men be saved.[1 Timothy 2:4]…”
(“Lumen Gentium“, Pope Saint Paul VI (November 21, 1964))

And that’s all I have time for this week. Eventually, I’ll talk about why the Moon’s south polar region is so important. Maybe next week, but more likely later. I’ve got a few other items lined up that could go first.

Somewhat-related posts:

1 A little history, a little science:

2 ‘For more information’ resources, a short list:

3 “…We came in peace for all mankind”:

4 History, recent and current:

5 Over a century of history, a nickel tour:

6 India’s space program; past, present and future:

7 A citizen, a scientist and a legacy:

8 Space pilot:

9 Mars 2020:

10 Homa basics (assuming hawan, havan, and homa are at least realted words) and high-profile missions:

How interesting or useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating 0 / 5. Vote count: 0

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

I am sorry that this post was not useful for you!

Let me learn why!

How could I have made this more nearly worth your time?

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
This entry was posted in Back to the Moon, Onward to Mars, Being Catholic, Discursive Detours, Journal, Science News and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Thanks for taking time to comment!