India’s robotic lander touches down on the moon, lifting spirits at home and abroad

Indian mission controllers cheer the successful touchdown of the Vikram lunar lander. (ISRO via YouTube)

Indian mission controllers cheer the successful touchdown of the Vikram lunar lander. (ISRO via YouTube)

A robotic Indian lander set down safely on the moon today, setting off a wave of pride that reached from Mission Control in Bengaluru to Seattle’s tech community.

“India is now on the moon,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said over a video link moments after the landing at 6:03 p.m. Indian Standard Time (5:33 a.m. PT). He went on to say that “this success belongs to all humanity.”

A roomful of mission controllers in Bengaluru cheered when the landing was confirmed at the end of a six-week-long space odyssey. “This will remain the most memorable and happiest moment for all of us,” said Kalpana Kalahasti, associate project director for the Chandrayaan-3 mission at the Indian Space Research Organization.

Today’s touchdown added India to an exclusive club of moon-landing nations that also includes the U.S., Russia and China. India’s Vikram lander is the first robotic probe to visit the moon’s south polar region, which is thought to be prime territory for human exploration and settlement.

Soon after the landing, Vikram sent back an image showing its surroundings — including one of the lander’s legs and its shadow:

The lander also returned imagery showing the deployment of its Pragyan rover, which sparked a fresh round of cheers at Mission Control:

Chandrayaan-3 is designed to study the composition of lunar soil as well as the thermal and seismic environment at the landing site, using instruments aboard the Vikram lander as well as the Pragyan rover. Scientists hope the data will shed light on the availability of water ice near the lunar south pole.

But today, the scientific angle was overshadowed by the boost to India’s national prestige. The elation that Indians felt was particularly high — coming four years after the Chandrayaan-2 mission’s lander crashed into the lunar surface, and four days after Russia’s Luna-25 lander met a similarly ignominious fate.

One of Chandrayaan-3’s fans is Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who was born in Hyderabad, India, and came to the United States more than 30 years ago.

“What an exciting moment for India — and the future of space exploration,” Nadella said in a congratulatory post on X / Twitter.

S. Somasegar, a managing director at Seattle-based Madrona Group, passed along his congratulations as well.

“This is proud moment and another huge step forward as far as advances in science and space go.  I am sure every Indian, and for that matter, everybody in the world is genuinely excited when we make significant progress and do something which hasn’t happened before,” Soma, who traces his roots to the Indian coastal city of Puducherry, told GeekWire in an email. “ISRO has had a fantastic track record of making space-related scientific breakthroughs in a cost-effective way, and this is another example of that.”

This year is a big one for robotic moon missions: In addition to the failed Russian landing and the successful Indian landing, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is due to launch its Smart Lander for Investigating Moon, or SLIM, as early as this weekend.

Meanwhile, two commercial U.S. probes are being readied for launch with NASA’s backing. Houston-based Intuitive Machines says its IM-1 lunar lander could begin its mission as early as Nov. 15 with a launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. And Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic says its Peregrine lander is ready to head for the moon with a boost from United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, currently set for its first liftoff late this year.

Both of those missions are targeting the lunar south polar region, where reserves of water ice in permanently shadowed craters could theoretically provide drinkable water, breathable oxygen and burnable hydrogen fuel for future explorers and settlers. NASA is planning to send astronauts to the region for the Artemis 3 mission in the mid-2020s.

There’s more to come from India as well: ISRO is getting ready to launch a sun-observing mission called Aditya-L1 next month. It’s also ramping up its Gaganyaan human spaceflight program — and talking with Japan’s space agency about LUPEX, an international robotic mission to the lunar south polar region.

“I am confident that all countries in the world, including those from the global south, are capable of achieving such feats,” Modi said. “We can all aspire for the moon, and beyond.”

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