NASA Finds Debris of India's Lost Lunar Lander

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ISRO scientists work on the orbiter vehicle of Chandrayaan-2, India's first moon lander and rover mission, in Bangalore on June 2019. MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/Getty Images

India's Chandrayaan-2 mission to the moon launched a spacecraft carrying a rover on July 22, the start of a much-touted mission to explore the unexplored south pole of the moon.

The ending didn't go nearly as well.

After a long journey, the lander approached the lunar surface on Sept. 7, but scientists from India's space agency lost contact with it mere moments ahead of the landing.

Engineers and scientists from the Indian Space and Research Organization (ISRO) tried to reconnect with the lander to continue the mission, but were not able to.

The debris first located by Shanmuga is about 750 meters northwest of the main crash site
Green dots indicate spacecraft debris (confirmed or likely). Blue dots locate disturbed soil, likely where small bits of the spacecraft churned up the regolith. NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

In December, NASA released photos of the moon's surface showing debris and soil disturbance from the site where the spacecraft was supposed to land.

The photos, including the one above, were taken on Nov. 11. The debris was found about 750 meters northwest of the main crash site.

What went wrong

The attempt to land was going as planned until the Vikram lander was about 2 kilometers above the moon's surface.

A successful landing would have put India in a elite group of nations that have accomplished a soft landing on the moon, including the United States, the former Soviet Union and China.

"The Chandrayaan-2 mission was a highly complex mission, which represented a significant technological leap," ISRO said in a statement. "The success criteria was defined for each and every phase of the mission and till date 90 to 95% of the mission objectives have been accomplished and will continue contribute to Lunar science."

In addition to the lander and rover, the agency also included an orbiting spacecraft in the launch vehicle. The camera on the orbiter has the highest resolution camera (0.3m) in any lunar mission so far and will provide images for the global scientific community.

ISRO says the Chandrayaan-2 mission is "to foster a new age of discovery, increase our understanding of space, stimulate the advancement of technology, promote global alliances, and inspire a future generation of explorers and scientists."

The Chandrayaan-2 mission marks the second moon-bound mission of the year that has failed just before landing.

In April, the Israeli Beresheet lunar lander also malfunctioned and failed just before touchdown; that lander was destroyed.

However, this is far from the last attempt to reach the south pole of the moon. NASA is currently planning to send astronauts there in 2024.

There's a lot of interest in the south pole. Planetary scientists have received new data over the last decade that indicates there are water ice deposits on the south pole. Scientists believe these deposits could be used for life support and to manufacture rocket fuel for future deep-space missions.

The total cost for the Chandrayaan-2 mission has been estimated to be about $145 million. It has been in development for nearly a decade.