India did it. The lander and rover of the Chandrayaan-3 mission reached the surface of the Moon, landing as expected on Wednesday, August 23 at 12:34 pm UTC (8:34 am EST). This makes India the fourth nation to successfully soft land on the Moon, after the Soviet Union, the United States, and China.
Chandrayaan-3 has landed at almost 70 degrees of latitude south, the first mission to land at the very intriguing lunar South Pole. Space agencies' interest in the region is due to the presence of permanently shaded craters where water ice has been detected from orbit. Due to the small tilt of the Moon, the poles have cold traps where light never reaches, and 60 percent of them are found beyond 80 degrees of latitude on the South Pole. This is one of the reasons the Artemis 3 mission aims to land humans there in a few years' time, but India will get a chance to explore that first.
Landing on the Moon remains a phenomenal accomplishment. Just because there have been many successful missions, it doesn’t mean it is not a gamble. Russia’s Luna 25 crash landing demonstrated exactly that. And there have been previous attempts by Israel, a United Arab Emirates-Japan partnership, and even India’s Chandrayaan-2 lander that didn’t reach the surface safely. Although the orbiter part of Chandrayaan-2 continues to perform important scientific observations around the Moon, including snapping some of the highest-resolution images of the surface yet.
The landing was a major hurdle, but it is not the only one ahead. Being the first at such high latitude is risky business. It is a harsher environment, in the already not-so-friendly lunar conditions. The terrain is very rugged, the availability of sunlight is decreased, and temperatures can get very low. But the mission team is excited to take these challenges head-on.
They will demonstrate the rover’s ability to loiter on the Moon with a mission, and then the lander and rover will conduct experiments on the lunar soil. The goal is to work for at least 14 Earth days (a full lunar day) with the orbiter working for at least six months. If all goes well, these numbers will easily be surpassed.
Among the experiments, they will measure the composition of the lunar surface, establish how much ice is in the lunar soil, and try to better understand how the tenuous atmosphere of the Moon evolves.