WASHINGTON — The technical success of India’s Chandrayaan-3 lunar lander mission could help not just India’s space program but also the country’s standing on the global stage, experts argue.
The Indian space agency ISRO put the Vikram lander into sleep mode late Sept. 3, shortly before nightfall at its landing site in the south polar regions of the moon. That came after ISRO powered down the Pragyan rover a day earlier. ISRO said it hopes that the lander can be powered back on in late September, after the two-week lunar night, although neither the lander nor the rover are equipped with systems to keep them warm in temperatures that could fall to as low as –190 degrees Celsius.
While Chandrayaan-3 has produced only a modest amount of science, including a handful of images, spectra and other data released by ISRO since its Aug. 23 landing, the successful landing and operation of both Vikram and Pragyan could support future, more ambitious Indian lunar missions.
ISRO hinted at that in one social media post about a final “hop” performed by the lander on Sept. 3, when the lander fired its engines to lift off the lunar surface by about 40 centimeters, landing about 30 to 40 centimeters from its original touchdown site. “Importance? This ‘kick-start’ enthuses future sample return and human missions!” ISRO stated.
ISRO has not announced any formal plans for sample return or other more sophisticated missions. Currently, the only Indian mission formally announced after Chandrayaan-3 is the Lunar Polar Exploration Mission, or LUPEX, a joint mission with Japan that would send an Indian-developed lander back to the south polar region of the moon with a Japanese rover. LUPEX would launch no earlier than the mid-2020s.
Outside experts expect India to pursue more ambitious missions that include sample return and resource utilization. “I believe India is interested in continuing to scale the moon for resources, the next time with a mission to detect helium-3, which has been a long-standing scientific focus of ISRO scientists and others from India’s astrophysics community,” said Namrata Goswami, a professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University who studies India’s space program. Helium-3 has long been identified as a potential fuel for nuclear fusion reactors, although such reactors do not yet exist.
“Moving forward, India would aim to develop the capacity for long-term lunar capabilities,” she added, including development of more sophisticated lunar technologies and, eventually, crewed lunar missions. That is one reason, she argued, India signed the U.S.-led Artemis Accords in June as it is “aimed at building a lunar base and support a permanent presence.”
Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, director of the Center for Security, Strategy & Technology at the Observer Research Foundation, an Indian think tank, agreed that India foresees one day sending humans to the moon, but added there is no timetable for doing so. “The successful landing of the Chandrayaan-3 has given hopes for India to do a crewed mission, but the timeline could also be a factor of India’s successful Gaganyaan mission slated for next year.”
Gaganyaan is India’s effort at developing a human orbital spaceflight capability, with ISRO developing a crewed capsule that would be launched on the country’s LVM3 rocket. That program missed its original goal of launching Indian astronauts by the 75th anniversary of the country’s independence in 2022 but is pushing ahead with a series of uncrewed tests before a crewed launch as soon as late 2024.
Goswami said the success of Chandrayaan-3 should ensure continued backing for Gaganyaan. “The celebration and support that India’s general population offered for India’s moon mission landing means a mission like Gaganyaan, where India will build its indigenous capacity to send Indian citizens to LEO, will have societal support.”
Chandrayaan-3 could also have geopolitical ramifications in the form of giving India “soft power” prestige enabling international cooperation. “The soft power aspects of India’s Chandrayaan-3 are significant,” said Rajagopalan, highlighting the capabilities of ISRO beyond lunar landing to areas like satellite launch. That, she said, “goes a long way in expanding India’s presence in the global commercial space market.”
“All of this expands India’s broader strategic influence as well,” she added.
Goswami providd a similar assessment. “Other nations would see India as a partner of choice as they aim to build their own space ecosystem on a limited budget,” she said. India has previously used its space capabilities along those lines, developing a “South Asia” communications and meteorology satellite that India offered capacity on to several neighboring south Asian countries.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Goswami said, “can now showcase India as a space power that can offer its space capabilities and know-how built on a frugal budget as a model to nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America as part of India’s foreign policy posture.”