India's moon rover snaps historic portraits of its tenacious lander

Here's how the Chandrayaan-3 mission's first week has gone.
By Elisha Sauers  on 
Pragyan rover snapping a photo of Vikram lander
India's Pragyan rover snaps a portrait of its mother lander, Vikram, near the south pole of the moon for history books on Aug. 30, 2023. Credit: ISRO

India's lunar rover snapped photos of its mother lander for posterity Wednesday, showing the spacecraft standing tall at the moon's desolate south pole region.

A close inspection of one of the images might first look alarming: It appears as though some parts have broken off the Vikram lander and are dangling from its undercarriage. But the Indian Space Research Organization, India's version of NASA, has identified those as instruments conducting science for the Chandrayaan-3 mission, and everything is operating normally.

The photos are further evidence of the mission's success as the first robotic craft to make the space voyage to the moon 239,000 miles away and touch down safely at the dark and craggy polar region. The victory puts India among the paucity of players — the former Soviet Union, United States, and China — that have touched the moon's surface. The achievement comes four years after India's Chandrayaan-2 mission crashed while attempting the same feat.

Since landing on Aug. 23, Chandrayaan-3, which means "moon craft" in Hindi, is halfway through its two-week operations and has so far taken the moon's temperature and started investigating its chemical composition.

The two instruments shown in the photos are the Chandra's Surface Thermophysical Experiment, which studies the thermal properties of the surface, and the Instrument for Lunar Seismic Activity, taking measurements at the landing site to chart the crust and mantle.

Pragyan taking photo of Vikram lander
The Indian Space Research Organization identified instruments below the Vikram lander at the landing site. Credit: ISRO

Indian moon mission finds sulfur in the soil

The Indian space agency announced Monday that its six-wheeled golden rover, named Pragyan, had found clear signs of sulfur in the soil, "something that was not feasible by the instruments onboard the orbiters," among other familiar elements from the periodic table. The news is a teaser to future scientific results expected from the mission.

The Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy instrument took the measurements using a technique that analyzes the soil by evaporating it with intense laser pulses. The process generates a hot plasma, whose light can then be studied. Each chemical ingredient has characteristic light wavelengths when it's in a plasma state, allowing scientists to identify the material. The instrument detected other signatures for aluminum, calcium, iron, chromium, titanium, manganese, silicon, and oxygen.

The mission is now focused on finding hydrogen, for obvious reasons. To have water, there must be both oxygen and hydrogen atoms present, you may recall from chemistry class.

Pragyan rover exploring the moon
The Indian space agency announced Monday that its six-wheeled golden rover, named Pragyan, had found clear signs of sulfur in the soil. Credit: ISRO

Why go to the moon's south pole region?

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Many nations and private ventures have set their sights on the polar region specifically because orbiter research has indicated there is ice buried in its permanently shadowed craters. The natural resource is compelling to spacefarers because it could supply drinking water, air, and rocket fuel for future missions. Not having to haul these staples from Earth could usher a new era in deep space exploration.

India's accomplishment happened days after the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, lost its Luna-25 robotic spacecraft in a crash. The Indian and Russian missions were in a mini space race, each vying to set their crewless spacecraft down near the south pole, though the Russian effort failed.

Pragyan rover avoiding a crater on the moon
The Pragyan rover avoided a 13-foot-wide crater. Credit: ISRO / X screenshot

Craters are part of what makes missions to the south pole dangerous. Long shadows sweeping the moonscape create difficult lighting and temperature conditions. Rovers must be able to navigate around the steep pits to avoid tipping down the edges.

Pragyan already encountered such an obstacle, but was able to steer away from the hazard in time to avoid it.

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Elisha Sauers

Elisha Sauers is the space and future tech reporter for Mashable, interested in asteroids, astronauts, and astro nuts. In over 15 years of reporting, she's covered a variety of topics, including health, business, and government, with a penchant for FOIA and other public records requests. She previously worked for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia, and The Capital in Annapolis, Maryland, now known as The Capital-Gazette. Her work has earned numerous state awards, including the Virginia Press Association's top honor, Best in Show,  and national recognition for narrative storytelling. In her first year covering space for Mashable, Sauers grabbed a National Headliner Award for beat reporting. Send space tips and story ideas to [email protected] or text 443-684-2489. Follow her on Twitter at @elishasauers.

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