Science News

NASA images reveal crashed Indian Moon lander

Eagle-eyed engineer spied debris from the spacecraft in a photo of the landing site.

T. V. Padma

doi:10.1038/nindia.2019.160 Published online 3 December 2019

Green dots indicate confirmed or likely spacecraft debris, while blue dots show disturbed soil. "S" is the debris identified by Shanmuga Subramanian.

© NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

Images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter have been used to confirm the final resting place of India’s Moon lander, Vikram. The country’s space agency lost contact with the craft just moments before it was supposed to touch down on 7 September.

A few days later, the Indian Space Research Organisation said it had located the lander, but did not release any images of the site.

Just over two weeks after the mishap, the team that manages the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s camera posted on its website an image of Vikram's intended landing site near the lunar south pole. It was then contacted by an engineer in Chennai, Shanmuga Subramanian, who had spotted features in the image that looked like debris.

The team was able to confirm that the features were debris from the craft by comparing a more detailed image taken before the landing with photos taken after. Those photos show a large crater from the main impact and a trail of debris spread across several kilometres.

Jitendra Singh, India’s Minister of State for the Department of Space, told the nation’s parliament last month that Vikram had hard-landed about 500 metres away from the designated landing site.

Vikram was supposed to touch down and explore the area nearby. But the lost contact with the craft when the it was 2.1 kilometres above its planned touch down site.

The craft was India’s first attempt to ‘soft’ land on the Moon, and part of the Chandrayaan-2 mission, the nation’s second ever venture to the satellite. Chandrayaan-2’s orbiter is carrying eight instruments, some of which will search for signs of water on the Moon, and continues to circle the Moon.

This article was first published in Nature.