Echoing Israeli failure, India loses touch with lander on its approach to moon
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Echoing Israeli failure, India loses touch with lander on its approach to moon

Spacecraft was making final approach to lunar surface to search for water when it ceased communications, recalling April crash landing of Israel’s Beresheet craft

Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) employees react as they listen to an announcement by organizations's chief Kailasavadivoo Sivan at its Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network facility in Bangalore, India, September 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)
Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) employees react as they listen to an announcement by organizations's chief Kailasavadivoo Sivan at its Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network facility in Bangalore, India, September 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

India’s space agency said it lost touch Saturday with its Vikram lunar lander as it made its final approach to the south pole of the moon to deploy a rover to search for signs of water.

The fate of the lander — whether it crashed or landed — wasn’t immediately known.

The incident recalled the crash landing of Israel’s Beresheet spacecraft, which in April smashed into the moon’s surface during its attempt to land there.

India’s space agency said the spacecraft’s descent was normal until 2 kilometers from the lunar surface.

“Let us hope for the best,” said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was at Mission Control in the southern city of Bengaluru.

The space agency was analyzing data as it worked to determine what had happened.

“Communications from lander to ground station was lost,” said K Sivan, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation. “The data is being analyzed.”

This photo released by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) shows its Geosynchronous Satellite launch Vehicle (GSLV) MkIII carrying Chandrayaan-2 lift off from Satish Dhawan Space center in Sriharikota, India, July 22, 2019. (Indian Space Research Organization via AP)

A successful landing would have made India just the fourth country to land a vessel on the lunar surface, and only the third nation to operate a robotic rover there.

The roughly $140 million mission, known as Chandrayaan-2, was intended to study permanently shadowed moon craters that are thought to contain water deposits that were confirmed by the Chandrayaan-1 mission in 2008.

Modi had traveled to the space center in Bengaluru to witness the planned landing in the early hours of Saturday and congratulate scientists who were part of the mission.

The space agency’s chairman had earlier called Chandrayaan-2 the “most complex mission ever” undertaken by the space agency.

The mission lifted off on July 22 from the Satish Dhawan space center, in Sriharikota, an island off the coast of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

After its launch on July 22, Chandrayaan-2 spent several weeks making its way to the moon, ultimately entering lunar orbit on Aug 20.

On September 2, Vikram separated from the mission’s orbiter, and the lander began a series of braking maneuvers to lower its orbit and ready itself for landing.

Only three nations — the United States, the former Soviet Union and China — have landed spacecraft on the moon.

Last January, China achieved the first landing on the far side of the moon.

Beresheet’s crash dashed the hopes of hundreds of engineers who had worked on the project for years.

Beresheet on display before its launch, December 17, 2018. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

The spacecraft successfully initiated its landing sequence, but a few kilometers above the moon’s surface the main engine failed, so the craft could not properly brake in time to cushion its landing.

Israel could still claim the title of seventh country to make lunar orbit, and the seventh country to reach the lunar surface, albeit not in one piece.

The last shot Beresheet sent of landing before crashing onto the moon’s surface, April 11, 2019. (YouTube screenshot)

“As far as we can see, we were very close to the moon,” operation control director Alex Friedman said to engineers in the SpaceIL control room in Yehud, east of Tel Aviv, after communication with the spacecraft went down. “We are on the moon, but not in the way that we wanted to.”

The spacecraft was budgeted at $100 million (NIS 370 million), a fraction of the cost of vehicles launched to the moon by major powers US, Russia and China in the past. It was a joint venture between private companies SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries, funded almost entirely by private donations from well-known Jewish philanthropists, including South African billionaire Morris Kahn, Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, Lynn Schusterman, and others.

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