India’s lunar mission, Chandrayaan-3, etched its name in the annals of history with a successful soft landing in the lunar south pole region. The achievement places India in an exclusive league of spacefaring nations that have accomplished such a feat.

The former Soviet Union, the United States, and China have all successfully landed spacecraft on the moon, but in other regions near the moon’s equator. India is the first country to successfully land a spacecraft at the moon’s south pole.

The Vikram lander, a component of the Chandrayaan-3 mission, executed its planned touchdown at 18:04 local time. The nation erupted in celebrations as Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared, “India is now on the Moon.” The prime minister was attending the BRICS summit in South Africa.

In the final moments before landing, the lander performed a delicate manoeuvre to slow down from a high speed and change its orientation from horizontal to vertical. This manoeuvre was critical to a safe landing, as too much force could have caused the lander to topple over, while too little force could have resulted in a hard landing in the wrong spot.

This manoeuvre was the same one that went wrong during the Chandrayaan-2 mission in 2019. The lander failed to change position and crashed into the surface.

Gradually slowing its speed from 1.68km per second to almost zero, the lander orchestrated a controlled touchdown on the lunar terrain. Following a brief interlude to allow settling dust to subside, the six-wheeled Pragyan rover will emerge from the lander’s protective compartment.

Pragyan will travel across the Moon’s landscape with its wheels touching the lunar surface. The rover will navigate around obstacles like rocks and craters. Its primary directive is to capture images and collect vital data on the Moon’s surface.

At the heart of the mission lies the search for water-based ice on the Moon.

It’s believed that these regions could house substantial reserves of water ice. The six-wheeled traveller and its stationary counterpart, the Vikram lander, are equipped with an arsenal of scientific instruments. Pragyan’s wheels, apart from their functional purpose, sport the Indian flag and the emblem of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

Chandrayaan-3 is the nation’s third lunar mission.

Chandrayaan-1 embarked on its maiden lunar expedition in 2008. The probe detected water molecules and established the presence of a daytime atmosphere on the lunar surface. This laid the foundation for future lunar exploration.

Chandrayaan-2 mission experienced an unfortunate setback during its soft-landing attempt. However, the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter persists around the Moon. It serves as a bridge between Earth and the Vikram lander for transmitting data.

Chandrayaan-3, which means ‘moon vehicle’ in Sanskrit, was launched on 14 July from Sriharikota in southern India. It took the spacecraft about 40 days to reach the moon. This timeframe was much longer than the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s, which took just a few days. The slower journey is because Chandrayaan-3 uses a less powerful launch vehicle and a more gradual trajectory.

India uses less powerful rockets than the US did during the Apollo missions. The probe orbited Earth several times to gain speed before embarking on its month-long journey to the moon.

The Chandrayaan-3 success comes just days after Russia’s first moon mission in 47 years, Luna-25, failed when it spun out of control and crashed. The head of Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, attributed the failure to a lack of expertise due to the long break in lunar research since the last Soviet mission to the moon in 1976.

The mission is a major achievement for the country’s space programme and a boost to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image as a leader. Modi’s nationalist government is eager to showcase India’s rising standing as a technology and space powerhouse.

The success of the mission is also seen as a way to counter China’s growing dominance in space. China has been rapidly developing its space programme in recent years.