For all the risks, for all that was riding on a successful landing, the descent to the moon’s surface was remarkably uneventful, if not exactly stress-free. The Vikram lander, part of India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission, dropped steadily on its thrusters to the rock below, slowed to a hover as it approached the ground, and finally came to a rest on the dusty terrain.
When confirmation came that the lander was down, anxiety in the control room gave way to cheers and applause. With the soft touchdown, India becomes the first country to land a probe at the moon’s south pole, a rugged region where deep craters lie in permanent shadow and where ice could provide water, oxygen and fuel for future missions. The first will be on the moon itself, and in lunar orbit, but they could also supply trips to Mars, with the benefit that the materials do not need to be lifted off the Earth’s surface at great cost. It is a region of key scientific interest.
It may be half a century since the last Apollo mission, but landing on the moon remains a huge technical feat. India is only the fourth country to pull off a controlled landing on the surface, after the US, China and the former Soviet Union. That India chose one of the moon’s poles as its destination – a tougher prospect than landing near the equator – makes the success that much sweeter.
“Knowing that it can be done doesn’t make it easy,” said Prof Martin Barstow, director of strategic partnerships at Space Park Leicester. “Landing at the poles is much more difficult than landing at the equator. You’ve got to get into a polar orbit to release the lander and nobody has done that before. The US hasn’t landed anything at the poles on the moon.”
There is more to the achievement than the technical feat. The landing boosts the prestige of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) less than a week after a Russian probe spun out of control and crashed into the moon’s surface. The ill-fated Luna-25 mission was Russia’s first attempt to land on the moon in 47 years.
“This is an exciting moment for Indian space exploration,” said Prof Andrew Coates at UCL’s Mullard space science laboratory. “Following their earlier successful orbiters to the moon and Mars, this cements their position as one of the key spacefaring nations and is an impressive scientific and engineering achievement.”
The prime minister, Narendra Modi, followed the landing from the Brics summit in South Africa and appeared on the Indian space agency’s live stream with a message for the world. “India is on the moon,” he said, adding that all countries, including those from the global south, were capable of such missions. “The sky is not the limit.”
The landing raises India’s profile as a spacefaring nation at a crucial time. Like other countries, India has privatised its rocket launches. Through foreign investment, India plans to expand its share of the global launch market fivefold over the next decade. That ambition will be helped by India being seen as a low-cost provider of space launch services.
There will certainly be demand. The global space launch market is expected to grow from $9bn (£7bn) this year to more than $20bn in 2030. Beyond satellite launches, big space agencies including Nasa, the European Space Agency, Russia and China are gearing up for a return to the moon, a long-term commitment that involves building a moon-orbiting space station and lunar habitats for astronauts to live in. “There’s so much that needs to be done that no one country can do it all,” said Barstow. “There will be a place for many countries in going back to the moon.”