Chandrayaan, Aditya-L1, Gaganyaan: The year India reached the Moon – and aimed for the Sun

A photo of the Vikram lander taken by Pragyaan rover on Wednesday
Image caption,Vikram lander, with Pragyaan rover in its belly, landed on the far side of the Moon in August

By Geeta Pandey

BBC News, Delhi

In India, 2023 will be remembered as the year we went to the Moon.

On 23 August, massive celebrations broke out across the country when Chandrayaan-3 touched down in the lunar south pole region – an area on the Moon’s surface that no-one had reached before.

With this, India also joined an elite club of countries to achieve a soft landing on the Moon, after the US, the former Soviet Union and China.

In the following months, India continued its journey into space – by sending an observation mission to the Sun and then by carrying out a key test flight ahead of its planned mission to take astronauts into space in 2025.

We look back at an eventful year when India’s strides into space made global headlines.

To the Moon

It was “20 minutes of terror” for scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) as the Vikram lander, carrying the Pragyaan rover in its belly, began its descent to the Moon’s surface.

The lander’s speed was gradually reduced from 1.68km per second to almost zero, enabling it to make a soft landing in the south pole region where the surface is “very uneven” and “full of craters and boulders”.

“India is on the Moon,” a triumphant Isro chief S Somanath announced – and with that the country entered the history books.

Over the next 10 days, space scientists – and the rest of the country – followed every move made by the lander and the rover as they gathered data and images and relayed them back to Earth for analysis.

The distance covered by the lunar rover
Image caption,Isro released a graphic of the path taken by the lunar rover

So we saw images of the six-wheeled rover sliding down from the lander’s belly and taking its first steps on the lunar soil. Moving at a speed of 1cm per second, it “traversed over 100m [328 feet]” and at times re-routed to avoid falling into craters.

Some of their findings that show a sharp difference in temperatures just above and below the lunar surface and confirmed presence of a host of chemicals, especially sulphur, in the soil have enthused space scientists and the scientific community at large.

A proud Isro said the mission had not just completed its goals but also exceeded them.

One of the highlights, Isro said, was Vikram’s “hop experiment”. The agency said that when the lander was “commanded to fire its engines, it rose up by about 40cm [16 inches] and landed at a distance of 30-40cm”. This “successful experiment” means the spacecraft could be used in future to bring samples back to the Earth or for human missions, it added.

And earlier this month Isro said it had successfully brought back into Earth’s orbit a part of the rocket that carried Chandrayaan-3 to the Moon.

The “propulsion module”, which had detached from the Vikram lander after ferrying it close to the Moon, had re-entered Earth’s orbit after a series of complex manoeuvres.

Together, the hop experiment and the return of the propulsion module to Earth’s orbit are crucial for Isro’s future plans to bring back samples or return astronauts from Space.

Looking at the Sun

Just days after the Moon landing, India launched Aditya-L1 – its first observation mission to the Sun.

The rocket that took off on 2 September is on a four-month 1.5 million km (932,000 miles)-journey from the Earth and is expected to reach its destination next week.

That destination – called L1 or Lagrange point 1 – is at 1% of the Earth-Sun distance. It’s the exact spot between where the gravitational forces of two large objects, such as the Sun and the Earth, cancel each other out, allowing a spacecraft to “hover”.

Once Aditya – named after the Hindu god of Sun – reaches this “parking spot”, it would be able to orbit the Sun at the same rate as the Earth. From this vantage point, it will keep an eye on the Sun 24/7 and carry out scientific studies.

Aditya-L1's trajectory

The orbiter is carrying seven scientific instruments that will observe and study the solar corona (the outermost layer); the photosphere (the Sun’s surface or the part we see from the Earth) and the chromosphere (a thin layer of plasma that lies between the photosphere and the corona).

Isro says the studies will help scientists understand solar activity, such as the solar wind and solar flares, and their effect on Earth and space weather in real time.

The agency has already shared some of the scientific data collected by the orbiter – and images taken by its camera have been watched millions of times on X (formerly Twitter).

Can we return from space?

That’s the key question that India’s space agency tried to answer when it launched the Gaganyaan spacecraft on 21 October, the first in a series of test flights ahead of its planned mission to take astronauts into space in 2025.

India has said it plans to place three astronauts into low-Earth orbit at an altitude of 400km for three days and the Isro chief has said Gaganyaan is their “immediate priority”.

“Send an Indian to space and bring them back safely – this is our immediate big-ticket target,” Mr Somanath said.

Image caption,Gaganyaan’s crew escape module was fished out from the Bay of Bengal by Indian navy divers

The test flight in October was to demonstrate whether the crew can safely escape the rocket in case it malfunctions.

So, once the rocket had travelled about 12km in the sky, its abort systems were activated and a series of parachutes were deployed which brought it down safely in the waters of Bay of Bengal from where it was fished out by Indian navy divers.

Since the test was successful, Isro has said it will first send a female humanoid – a robot that resembles a human – in an unmanned Gaganyaan spacecraft before finally sending astronauts into space.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *