An Indian rocket hurtled into space Friday to land a robotic rover on an unexplored area of the moon – a challenging feat India was unable to accomplish on a mission four years ago.
Only three countries, the U.S., China and Russia, have made what is called a “soft” or “controlled” landing on the lunar surface. If the Indian Space Research Organization, or ISRO, is successful this time, some observers say the mission will establish India’s position as one of the world’s leading space powers.
Millions around the country watched a live telecast of the launch of the “Chandrayaan-3” spacecraft from Sriharikota in southern India and thousands packed a viewing gallery in the launch site’s vicinity.
“Congratulations India. Chandrayaan-3 has started its journey toward the moon,” ISRO Chairman Sreedhara Panicker Somanath said, after the launch, as scientists at the mission control center clapped and shook hands.
The mission’s real test will come some 40 days from now when the lander equipped with a robotic rover will separate from the main spacecraft to land on the lunar surface on August 23 or August 24.
“This remarkable mission will carry the hopes and dreams of our nation,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is visiting France, tweeted ahead of the launch.
Friday’s launch by the ISRO is the country’s first major space mission since the failed attempt in 2019 when scientists lost contact with the lander minutes before it was scheduled to descend on the lunar surface. It was later established that it had crashed.
Chandrayaan-3 also will deploy a rover near the lunar South Pole, where it is expected to run a series of experiments for 14 days focusing on the composition of lunar soil and rocks. Chandrayaan means “moon vehicle” in Sanskrit.
India is hoping to become the first country to conduct studies of the South Pole, where no mission has ventured, and which scientists say has a different geology from the equatorial regions of the lunar surface.
There is an expectation the South Pole has ice deposits in the depths of craters, as well as minerals.
Scientists at the ISRO expressed optimism about Chandrayaan-3 achieving its goal of a “soft landing,” saying the mistakes that led to the failure of the previous mission have been rectified.
The Chandrayaan-3 mission is crucial for India — even though its space program is much more modest than that of countries like the U.S. and China, the country wants to showcase its technological prowess amid its ambitions to be seen as an emerging global power.
“It is indeed a moment of glory for India and a moment of destiny for all of us,” India’s minister for science and technology, Jitendra Prasad, said after the lift-off of the spacecraft.
“Entering a small elite club, or becoming one of the pioneers of certain efforts, such as those in space, will continue to be a major indicator of skill, talent, capability and sound organization that decision-makers are able to utilize and leverage in politics,” Tomas Hrozensky of the European Space Policy Institute told VOA in emailed comments.
India’s space program, built largely on its own proprietary technology, has long been a source of pride for the country. Its first mission to the moon helped establish the presence of water on the moon.
Although the second mission was unsuccessful in making a landing, it placed an orbiter around the moon that continues to relay data. An unmanned mission to Mars in 2013 marked the country’s first interplanetary mission. The ISRO is now developing a spacecraft to take astronauts into orbit, probably in 2025.
India has also for decades launched its own satellites and those of other countries with its space program focusing heavily on low-cost access to space.
Experts also say the price tag of India’s current mission, $75 million, also underlines India’s prowess in conducting space exploration at a modest cost.
Exploring the moon has reemerged on the radar of many countries in recent years. The U.S. space agency NASA has announced that a four-member astronaut crew will carry out a planned test mission around the moon next year. In addition, India and the U.S. are collaborating to send an Indian astronaut to the International Space Station next year.