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India's space agency detects missing lunar lander on moon's surface

The Moon in full view
Photo: NASA/Goddard/LRO

The chairman of India's space agency said Sunday that the country's lunar lander has been detected by a thermal image on the moon's surface, but that the agency is still trying to establish contact, Asian News International reports.

Driving the news: India's attempt to land a spacecraft on the surface of the Moon for the first time on Friday appeared to have failed, with "communication from the lander to the ground stations" lost, according to the Indian Space Research Organisation's Mission Control Centre.

Why it matters: If the Vikram lander did touch down and mission control can establish communication, it would make the nation only the 4th — after the former Soviet Union, the U.S. and China — to successfully operate a mission on the lunar surface.

K. Sivan, the director of the Indian Space Research Organisation, told Asian News International it's uncertain what condition the spacecraft is in and that it's "premature to say anything."

Details: It's not yet clear why the lander lost contact with Mission Control just before it was expected to land.

  • Vikram separated from the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter around the Moon on Sept. 2 and slowly started to descend, losing speed and preparing for landing in the Moon's south polar region.
  • Vikram and the small Pragyaan rover it carried were expected to investigate the water-ice environment on that part of the Moon.
  • Scientists have long thought that the Moon's poles likely contain a fair amount of ice, which researchers think might be able to be converted into fuel for farther afield missions one day.

The big picture: India has been working to cement itself as a space superpower.

  • Earlier this year, the nation launched a test of an anti-satellite system that created hundreds of pieces of space debris in low-Earth orbit and drew criticism from the international community. China, Russia and the U.S. have also successfully tested their own anti-satellite systems.
  • India inserted a spacecraft in orbit around Mars in 2014, where it's still gathering data today.

Context: If communication with the lander is not established, this will be the second lunar landing failure this year. The main engine of Israel's Beresheet lander malfunctioned just ahead of its own expected touchdown on the Moon in April.

Go deeper ... Factory Moon: Axios' special report on Earth's nearest neighbor