It’s Dead, Jim! ISRO Gives Up on Lunar Lander, Rover

Chandrayaan2 Vikram lander (Credit: ISRO)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Well, it’s not the famous winter of Game of Thrones, but the 14-day lunar night has arrived where India’s Vikram lander and Pragyan rover made what IRSO officials have called a “hard landing” two weeks ago with no communication between them and ground controllers.

Since neither vehicle was designed to survive the frigid temperatures of the lunar night, the Indian space agency has called it a day in a rather bare bones announcement.

Update on Chandrayaan-2

  • All Payloads of orbiter are powered.
  • Initial trials for orbiter Payloads are completed successfully.
  • Performance of all orbiter Payloads is satisfactory.
  • Orbiter continues to perform scheduled science experiments to complete satisfaction.
  • National level committee consisting of academicians and ISRO experts are analyzing the cause of communication loss with lander.

Note the language used: communication loss. Not a hard landing. Not a crash. Not a landing failure. A loss of communication. Accurate enough, but not very complete.

Meanwhile, a pass over the landing area by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) earlier this week reportedly did not return any images of Vikram. It’s not clear whether the lander was outside LRO’s field of view or if it was hidden in the lengthening shadows of the approaching lunar night. LRO’s next opportunity will be in mid-October.

ISRO announced soon after the landing attempt that the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter that delivered Vikram to the moon has imaged the lander. But, the tight-lipped space agency has not released any images.

ISRO will certainly learn from this failure and try again. And there is every reason to believe the space agency is talented enough to succeed in a future mission.

Chandrayaan-2 rover (Credit: ISRO)

One thing we have already learned from this incident: ISRO has no plans for failure.

Success, that it had a plan for. The landing was webcast to the world, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in the house, students from throughout the country were present at mission control to witness the historic event, and some Indian commentators spoke of the landing as if it was a sure thing.

When Vikram veered off course and ended all communications as it approached the moon, ISRO went silent. Long periods of silence punctuated periodically by updates saying communications had been lost and that controllers were analyzing the data.

Dr. K Sivan (Credit: ISRO)

It was clear from the long faces that Vikram had almost certainly been lost. Modi gave a pep talk to space agency personnel, talked with students, and consoled a distraught ISRO Chairman K. Sivan as he broke down in tears.

Modi’s embrace of Sivan was a touching scene that was indicative of the leadership the prime minister showed at a difficult moment. He was able to pivot easily from triumph to bucking up a deeply disappointed nation.

I was left to wonder how President Donald Trump would have reacted if NASA suffered a similar setback when he was at a control center. He would probably be angry with NASA for dragging him there to see a failure, and would find some way to make it all about himself.

If Modi’s actions was admirable, the same cannot be said for ISRO’s actions over the past two weeks. Never as open about its failures as NASA, the Indian space agency has been particularly tight lipped.

ISRO has refused to release any images of the lander. Its public updates were as brief as possible. Sivan gave some interviews to selected publications that didn’t add all that much to the official updates.

The information vacuum was filled with stories containing conflicting speculation and information from anonymous sources. Vikram had landed intact on its side. Or it wasn’t in one piece. The lander got to within two km of the surface. Or 400 meters. Reports varied.

The space agency has focused on the positives: Vikram had gotten most of the way to the moon. The Chandrayaan-2 orbiter with most of the mission’s scientific instruments was functioning normally. The mission would return 95 percent of the science it was designed to conduct.

All that is true. But, the main goal of the mission was not simply to repeat what the Chandrayaan-1 orbiter had done a decade with a larger, more capable spacecraft. That’s not what drew the prime minister and all the students to mission control. It’s not what caused a global audience to tune in two weeks ago.

The landing was the unique part of this mission. Success would have vaulted India into an elite group that includes the United States, Soviet Union and China. And to de-emphasize the failure because Vikram and Pragyan didn’t carry the bulk of the mission’s scientific experiments misses the point of what they were built to do.

The lander and the rover were primarily engineer tests, to prove that India could soft land on moon and operate these systems for two weeks on the surface before the lunar night arrived. The science was important, but secondary to getting them down safely. With limited lifespans, the data returned from the lander and rover would be far less than the orbiter would provide.

Vikram and Pragyan were to pave the way for larger and more sophisticated surface systems, much as Chandrayaan-1 led the successor now circling the moon.

Looking at it in this broader sense — without a focus on the number of scientific instruments, or the volume of data that will be returned — it is fair to say that half of the Chandrayaan-2 mission has failed. ISRO didn’t achieve its major objective of landing on the moon.

There’s no shame in that. India isn’t the first to fail at that difficult task. It won’t be the last. ISRO will learn the failure and eventually succeed.

What is disappointing is ISRO’s failure to level with the Indian public and the world about this failure. Its approach to releasing information is primarily what is known as an one-way publicity model designed to promote its successes while saying as little as possible about its setbacks.

The Indian people — who have supported ISRO through thick and thin with their tax dollars — deserve better. An open approach will also help ISRO as it increases its cooperation with the United States, Russia and other nations. Such cooperation requires a high level of truth.

There’s one other element that’s been largely overlooked. As sad as losing Vikram and Pragyan was, they are robots. They can be easily replaced.

If all goes well, India will be launching astronauts into space on its own rockets by 2022. Human spaceflight will take ISRO to entirely new levels of risk and public interest, expectations and anxiety.

I have seen satellite and crewed launches in person. The different in the tension involved is like night and day. Elaborate precautions are taken to ensure that if a satellite launch goes wrong, nobody on the ground will be hurt. (China and Russia, which launch over land, take greater risks.)

Five years ago, I saw the results of a crewed rocket launch that went wrong when SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise broke up during a flight test. The co-pilot died and the pilot was seriously injured. The cockpit with the co-pilot narrowly missed hitting two truck drivers on the ground.

Under law, Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites were prohibited from commenting on the cause of the accident. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was on the scene the day after the crash and gave a press conference. The following evening, NTSB gave a briefing revealing the cause of the accident.

ISRO should not go into the human spaceflight business with the approach to media relations it has used in the last two weeks. There is too much at stake. People will be demanding answers if Indian astronauts die during a flight.

ISRO needs to up its game. It will be interesting to see if it will.