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NASA finds crash site of Indian lunar lander

NASA says it has found the parts of India’s spacecraft that crashed into the moon in a failed soft landing attempt in September. 

The lander, Vikram, was part of Chandrayaan-2, a moon mission India launched in July. A successful landing would have made India only the fourth country to put a lander on the moon with a soft landing. But Vikram went off course in its attempt to land on the lunar South Pole on September 7. It then lost radio contact. 

India announced it had located the lander a day later. But it did not publish any images of the hard landing site, which were reportedly taken by the mission’s accompanying orbiter. The orbiter continues to carry out a scientific mission.

NASA reported this week that one of its satellites found the debris of the moon rover. It released a picture showing what appears to be the crash site. The U.S. space agency credited an Indian engineer with the discovery. 

Shanmuga Subramanian found the debris after examining a NASA picture. It is located about 750 meters north of the main crash site. 

Yesterday, NASA reported that the Vikram lander was found by our @NASAMoon mission, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The space agency also noted that the discovery was made after receiving a tip from Subramanian.

“The crash landing of Vikram rekindled an interest in the moon not only for me and others also,” Subramanian wrote in an email. “I think even if Vikram had landed and sent some images, we would have never had such interest. For the first few days I was scanning the images randomly and there were lot of false positives.”

He told the BBC that he searched images from NASA of the lander’s last location and he had an approximate idea about where it crashed.

So I searched pixel-by-pixel around that impact area,” the engineer told BBC Tamil.

He got a big break when he noticed a white speck on the surface of the moon, less than a mile from Vikram’s projected landing. He then reported his findings to NASA, which was able to confirm his analysis.

A successful soft landing would have been a technological feat for India. It was also a matter of national pride. The mission was broadcast and watched around the world by space enthusiasts. What’s more, the mission was on an extremely tight budget at under $175 million.

BBC noted that the budget for the move Avengers: Endgame, for example, was about double that $356 million. India previously attempted and succeeded in carrying out a hard landing on the moon. During that landing, they were able to collect data from the dust that shot up upon impact.

The rover on the lander had the capacity to move about 500 meters from the lander and would have had a 14-day lifespan. Indian space engineers had hoped it would have sent back data and images for new analysis of the moon’s surface.

Chandrayaan-2, translated into English as Moon Vehicle 2, was considered the most complex mission attempt by ISRO, India’s space agency. 

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