BANGLORE (AFP) – India’s space programme suffered a huge setback Saturday after losing contact with an unmanned spacecraft moments before it was due to make a historic soft landing on the Moon.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought to comfort glum scientists and a stunned nation from mission control in Bangalore, saying India was still “proud” and clasping the visibly emotional space agency head in a lengthy hug.
Blasting off in July, the emerging Asian giant had hoped to become just the fourth country after the United States, Russia and regional rival China to make a successful Moon landing, and the first on the lunar South Pole.
But in the early hours of Saturday local time, as Modi looked on and millions watched nationwide with bated breath, the Vikram lander – named after the father of India’s space programme – went silent just 2.1 kilometres (1.3 miles) above the lunar surface.
Its descent had been going “as planned and normal performance was observed”, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chairman Kailasavadivoo Sivan said.
The Chandrayaan-2 (“Moon Vehicle 2”) orbiter, is however “healthy, intact, functioning normally and safely in the lunar orbit”, the ISRO said.
Chandrayaan-2 took off on July 22 carrying an orbiter, lander and rover almost entirely designed and made in India – the mission cost a relatively modest $140 million.
ISRO had acknowledged before the soft landing that it was a complex manoeuvre, which Sivan called “15 minutes of terror”.
It was carrying rover Pragyan – “wisdom” in Sanskrit – which was due to emerge several hours after touchdown to scour the Moon’s surface, including for water.
The country’s principal scientific adviser, K Vijay Raghavan, described Chandrayaan-2 as “very complex, and a significant technological leap from previous missions of ISRO” in a series of tweets on Saturday.
ISRO in a late Saturday statement said that the orbiter’s “precise launch and mission management has ensured a long life of almost 7 years instead of the planned one year.”
“The Orbiter camera is the highest resolution camera (0.3m) in any lunar mission so far and shall provide high resolution images which will be immensely useful to the global scientific community,” it added.