India hails scientists as they await signals from moon lander

India stands with its space scientists and is proud of them for their inspiring efforts as they examine what led to loss of communication with the lander of the Moon mission Chandrayaan-2 when it was just 2.1 kilometres away from the lunar south pole early on Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said.

Addressing scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in Bengaluru, he said this setback only strengthens India’s resolve to land on the moon.

Scientists should not to be disheartened. Such hurdles in space exploration can be surmounted by covering more ground and learning through experience.

The best is yet to come in India’s space programme and the country is with its scientists, Modi said.

The prime minister was among the dignitaries who watched the lander Vikram’s 15-minute descent on the Moon from ISRO’s mission control centre, above, (Photo credit: ISRO).

Over a billion Indians joined Modi in hailing the scientists as they stayed awake to see India make history.  

The touchdown was scheduled at 1.53am Indian time (GMT20.23/ET4.23pm) and the lander performed manoeuvres at each phase lasting minutes or seconds as per script. Each successful manoeuvre drew a round of applause from those assembled in the mission control centre. There were smiles on faces and excitement in the air.

When the lander was just 2.1 kilometres away from the landing zone, all signals abruptly stopped and scientists looked worried.

This was the “terrifying moment” ISRO chairman K Sivan had anticipated.

Some scientists left their seats and huddled around him. On the giant monitors, the blip indicating the lander’s descent trajectory had stopped indicating signal loss.

Sivan walked into the viewer’s gallery to meet Modi and exchanged a few words with him. Former ISRO chiefs K Kasthurirangan and K Radhakrishnan also had a word with Sivan and it became clear something had gone wrong seconds before Vikram’s landing.     

As tension mounted in the control room, a scientist was heard asking her colleague whether the orbiter communication was on.

At 2.18 am, Sivan announced that communication from the lander to the ground station was lost at the altitude of 2.1 kilometre and data is being analysed to find the cause of the signal loss.

An official closely associated with the moon mission told PTI that the chances of re-establishing contact with the lander look remote.

But ISRO is awaiting signals from the lander and communication and photos from the orbiter circling around the moon when it comes above the designated landing zone of Vikram.

Experts say the possibility of the lander getting burned up in the Moon’s atmosphere is ruled out.

After the thrusters were fired during the final descent, the lander’s velocity was considerably reduced. Hence, a crash-landing looks remote. What is more likely is that clouds of solar dust or other factors may have led to the malfunctioning of the sensors receiving and sending the signals.