On July 14 at 5:05 a.m. EDT (09:05 GMT), Chandrayaan 3 was launched from Satish Dhawan Space Center on an LVM3 rocket. (Image courtesy of ISRO, an Indian space research organization)
Chandrayaan-3, India's third lunar exploration project, has started its legendary and winding trek to the moon.
The robotic lander and rover Chandrayaan-3, which has a propulsion unit as well, was launched early on July 14 from India's Satish Dhawan Space Center. If everything goes according to schedule, the mission will touch down on the moon on August 23 or August 24.
Being the fourth country to soft-land a probe on the moon, following the Soviet Union, the United States, and China, would be a major accomplishment for India.
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The three primary goals of the roughly $77 million US mission, according to Chandrayaan-3's operators, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), are to perform a safe soft landing close to the lunar south pole, to deploy a rover and demonstrate its operation, and to conduct in-situ scientific experiments over the course of one lunar day of operation (roughly equivalent to 14 Earth days).
However, Chandrayaan-3 has a lot of work to do before it can reach the moon. Here is a quick summary of those following actions.
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Diagram showing Chandrayaan-3's 6-week trip to the moon with block text outlining its mission objectives.
The Chandrayaan-3 mission sequence. (ISRO attribution for photo)
The nearly 40-day journey to the moon by Chandrayaan-3 is divided into three distinct phases by ISRO: the Earth-centric phase, the lunar transfer phase, and the moon-centric phase.
Liftoff and the separation of Chandrayaan-3 from its rocket marked the end of Phase 1's prelaunch, launch, and ascent phases. The mission is now in Phase 1's Earth-bound maneuver stage.
Chandrayaan-3 will orbit the planet five times in this chapter. The spacecraft will pass Earth more distantly and farther away with each swing. Chandrayaan-3 will be sent toward the moon during the lunar transfer phase (Phase 2) thanks to the final sweep, which will help put it on a lunar transfer trajectory.
Next, Chandrayaan-3 will enter lunar orbit, beginning the third phase (moon-centric phase), which will last for a few days. The mission will next make four orbits around the moon, moving progressively closer to the lunar surface with each loop.
Chandrayaan-3 cannot simply transition from an Earth orbit to a lunar landing.
The atmosphere of our home planet drags on spacecraft as they make their way back to Earth, slowing their fall. However, due to the moon's relatively thin atmosphere, spacecraft must slow down and make a considerably more leisurely approach in order to land on the moon.
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Diagram displaying the journey of Chandrayaan-3 to the moon.
The mission profile of Chandrayaan-3 involves several orbits of the Earth and the moon. (ISRO attribution for photo)
With the help of an engine burn, Chandrayaan-3 will be propelled into a circular orbit around 62 miles (100 kilometers) above the lunar surface. The mission's lander and rover will next detach from the propulsion module.
At a speed of less than 5 mph (8 kph), the lander will make contact with the lunar surface in the south polar area. Chandrayaan-3's propulsion module will continue to orbit the moon while maintaining contact with the rover and the lander.
As a backup communications relay, the Chandrayaan-3 vehicles will also use the orbiter from the Chandrayaan-2 project, which reached the moon in 2019. A lander-rover pair was part of Chandrayaan-2 as well, however in September 2019, they crashed while attempting to touch down on the moon.
Next on the moon, what?
The Times of India asked ISRO Chairman Sreedhara Panicker Somanath why Chandrayaan-3's solar-powered lander and rover are landing in late August.
"Landing will be on August 23 or 24, as we want the landing to happen when the sun rises on the moon, so we get 14 to 15 days to work," he stated. "We'll wait another month and land in September if landing is not possible on these two dates."
In addition to having its own propulsion system, navigational and guiding controls, and danger detection and avoidance systems, the Chandrayaan-3 lander also contains these features.
Since the Chandrayaan-2 tragedy, ISRO has made a number of adjustments. According to Somanath, these upgrades include the lander's legs being strengthened, its landing speed tolerance being raised, and the installation of new sensors to gauge approach speed.
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It will be time for the Chandrayaan-3 rover to roll out after a successful landing.
The rover is outfitted with its own scientific payloads to study the moon, such as the LASER Induced Breakdown Spectroscope (LIBS), which enables chemical analysis of the lunar surface, and the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS), which will perform the same analysis on lunar rocks and soil near the Chandrayaan-3 landing site.
The lander that brought the rover down to the surface will conduct its own research as the rover goes about its business. The Radio Anatomy of Moon Bound Hypersensitive Ionosphere and Atmosphere (RAMBHA) instrument on the lander will track the evolution of the plasma, a gas of electrons and ions, near the lunar surface.
The Instrument for Lunar Seismic Activity (ILSA) will study the seismicity of the moon in order to better understand the structure of the lunar crust and mantle, while the Chandra's Surface Thermophysical Experiment (ChaSTE) on the lander will evaluate the thermal characteristics of the south polar region.
The NASA-contributed LASER Retroreflector Array (LRA) passive experiment will be operating in the background on the lander throughout this entire process, gathering data that may aid in improving our understanding of the dynamics of the moon system.
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