India has lost contact with its Chandrayaan-2 lander, Vikram, which was scheduled to land near the lunar south pole on Friday. The landing proceeded as expected until the final braking phase, at which point the lander began to deviate from its expected trajectory. When Vikram was 2 kilometers above the lunar surface, the Indian Space Research Organization lost contact with the lander. During the last contact, the lander appeared to be approaching a landing site about one kilometer downrange of its target.
The Indian Space Research Organization hasn’t yet confirmed if the Vikram lander was destroyed upon impact, but the lack of communication from the lander is a troubling sign. If the lander did not survive the impact, India would be the second country to lose a lunar lander this year. In April, the Israeli Beresheet lunar lander also failed just before touchdown and was destroyed.
The loss of the Vikram lander and the Pragyan rover it was carrying to the lunar surface would be a big blow for India’s space program. The Chandrayaan-2 program has been a decade in the making and was India’s most ambitious space mission yet.
But all is not lost for the mission. More than half of the scientific instruments it carried to the moon are safe on the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter, which will spend the next year mapping the lunar surface and studying the deposits of water ice at the south pole. Planetary scientists are particularly interested in this region of the moon because it is believed to be rich in water ice. In principle, this means it can be used for life support and manufacturing rocket fuel, which is arguably the main reason why NASA is planning to send astronauts to the lunar south pole in 2024.
With any luck, India’s Vikram lander will be there to greet them. But if not, the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter can still provide valuable data that will build a foundation for future human missions to the lunar south pole. And hey, at least it didn’t spill any tardigrades.