India’s Chandrayaan-2 Moon Launch Is Delayed


ImageIndia’s GSLV Mark III rocket being prepared earlier this month for launch of the Chandrayaan-2 mission on Monday.
India’s GSLV Mark III rocket being prepared earlier this month for launch of the Chandrayaan-2 mission on Monday.CreditCreditIndian Space Research Organization, via Associated Press

India’s GSLV Mark III rocket being prepared earlier this month for launch of the Chandrayaan-2 mission on Monday.CreditCreditIndian Space Research Organization, via Associated Press

Kenneth Chang

Liftoff had been scheduled for Monday at 2:51 a.m. local time from the Satish Dhawan Space Center along the southeastern coast of India. The spacecraft was mounted on India’s most powerful rocket, a Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle — Mark III. But an unexplained technical problem, according to the Indian Space Research Organization, which is India’s equivalent of NASA, led to a postponement of the launch.

ImageChandrayaan-2 includes a moon orbiter, a lander called Vikram and a robotic rover called Pragyan that will explore the lunar surface in September.
Chandrayaan-2 includes a moon orbiter, a lander called Vikram and a robotic rover called Pragyan that will explore the lunar surface in September.CreditIndian Space Research Organization/EPA, via Shutterstock

The spacecraft consists of multiple pieces:

  • an orbiter;

  • a lander named Vikram, after Vikram A. Sarabhai, the father of the Indian space program;

  • and, a six-wheeled rover named Pragyan, which means “wisdom” in Sanskrit.

In September, the lander (which will be carrying the rover) will detach from the orbiter and head to a landing site near the South Pole of the moon.

The rover carries a couple of instruments to measure the composition of moon rocks and soil. The lander carries instruments to measure moonquakes, temperatures a couple of inches into the soil and charged particles from the sun in the extremely tenuous lunar atmosphere.

The lander and rover are expected to operate just a couple of weeks.

The orbiter carries a suite of instruments, including cameras and spectrometers, and is designed to operate at least a year.

K. Sivan, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation, or ISRO, India’s equivalent to NASA.CreditJagadeesh Nv/EPA, via Shutterstock
ISRO’s Satellite Integration and Test Establishment, where Chandrayaan-2 was assembled. The agency hopes to send a crew into space for the first time by 2022.CreditJagadeesh Nv/EPA, via Shutterstock

For people in India, the space program is a demonstration of their country’s emerging technological capabilities. The Chandrayaan-2 lander and rover will explore a spot near the lunar South Pole, which is an intriguing region that no one has seen up close yet. Water ice exists deep within eternally shadowed craters near the poles.

Chandrayaan-2 will be heading not into a crater but instead to a high plain between two craters.

It is Hindi for “moon vehicle.”

As the 2 in Chandrayaan-2 indicates, India has already sent one spacecraft to the moon. The orbiter Chandrayaan-1, launched in 2008, operated for 10 months and helped confirm the presence of water ice in the lunar craters.

India also launched an orbiter to Mars in 2013 that continues to orbit the red planet, and in 2017, an Indian rocket deployed 104 satellites, a record for a single launch.

India’s space missions have cost a fraction of those from bigger space agencies like NASA and the European Space Agency, but they have also generally carried simpler payloads. That is also true of Chandrayaan-2, which cost less than $150 million.

In March, India also demonstrated a less friendly space capability, an antisatellite test that scattered hundreds of pieces of debris. China, the United States and Russia have developed similar weapons.

ISRO’s plans include additional robotic missions to Venus, Mars, the moon and the sun.

India is also working on flying its astronauts to Earth orbit on Gaganyaan, or “orbital vehicle.” A crewless test is scheduled for December of next year; the first flight with people aboard is scheduled for 2022.

China landed Chang’e-4, a robotic lander, on the far side of the moon in January. The unsuccessful landing attempt by Israel’s Beresheet occurred in April.

The Trump administration is aiming for the United States to return astronauts to the moon in 2024, and NASA is also paying private companies to carry scientific payloads to the lunar surface, potentially as soon as next year.

India has already launched orbiters to the moon and Mars, but Chandrayaan-2 is its first attempt at landing on another world.CreditJagadeesh Nv/EPA, via Shutterstock

Kenneth Chang has been at The Times since 2000, writing about physics, geology, chemistry, and the planets. Before becoming a science writer, he was a graduate student whose research involved the control of chaos. @kchangnyt