In a monumental achievement, India's Chandrayaan-3 rover, named Pragyaan (meaning "wisdom" in Sanskrit), has marked its presence on the Moon's surface. Just a day after creating history by executing a successful soft landing near the Moon's south pole, India's space agency proudly announced that "India took a walk on the Moon!" The Vikram lander, which carried the 26kg Pragyaan, touched down as planned on the 23rd of August evening.
By achieving this feat, India joins an elite group of nations that have accomplished soft landings on the Moon, a list that includes the United States, the former Soviet Union, and China. Pragyaan's journey began when the Vikram lander deployed a ramp from its side, allowing the rover to gracefully descend to the lunar surface from its belly.
Pragyaan, equipped with two scientific instruments, is now set to explore the Moon's landscape, gathering invaluable data and images to be transmitted back to Earth for thorough analysis. Its primary objectives involve determining the mineral composition of the lunar surface and studying the chemical makeup of the soil. The rover's communication is limited to the lander, which relays information to the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter, still orbiting the Moon, for onward transmission to Earth.
Operating at a speed of 1cm per second, Pragyaan will leave behind the imprint of the Indian Space Research Organisation's (ISRO) logo and emblem on the Moon's surface with each movement of its six wheels.
The successful landing coincides with the commencement of a lunar day, equivalent to a little over four weeks on Earth. This ensures that the lander and rover have approximately 14 days of sunlight to recharge their batteries. However, uncertainty looms over whether they will reactivate when the next lunar day begins after the inevitable onset of nightfall.
Beyond Pragyaan's mission, the Vikram lander hosts a suite of scientific instruments to unveil the mysteries above and below the Moon's surface. Moon is thought to hold important minerals but one of the major goals of Chandrayaan-3 is to hunt for water - scientists say the huge craters in the south pole region which are permanently in shadow hold ice that could support human habitation on the Moon in the future. It could also be used for supplying propellant for spacecraft headed to Mars and other distant destinations.
The exhilarating moment of the soft landing was met with nationwide celebrations, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi stating, "India is now on the Moon" and emphasizing that the country had ventured where no other nation had gone before. The triumph is particularly noteworthy in the wake of Russia's Luna-25 spacecraft's recent mishap, crashing into the Moon. This incident highlighted the formidable challenges posed by the treacherous terrain of the Moon's south pole, characterised by uneven surfaces, craters, and boulders.
This isn't India's first endeavour to explore the lunar realm. In 2019, the country's second lunar mission faced setbacks when its lander and rover were destroyed during an attempted soft landing. Nonetheless, the orbiter from that mission remains operational and has been assisting the Vikram lander in transmitting images and data back to Earth. India's accomplishments in lunar exploration are part of a broader global interest in the Moon. Numerous upcoming missions are slated for the lunar surface, reflecting the shared fascination with this celestial body that is often regarded as a gateway to deeper space exploration. As scientists continue their quests, much about the Moon's intricacies -its potential resources, historical insights, and the mysteries it holds- awaits revelation.