India loses contact with Moon probe amid fear of mission failure

The country hopes to become only the fourth nation in history to complete a controlled landing on the lunar surface

Members of the media cover the development as India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seen on a tv screen as he watches the live broadcast of the soft landing of spacecraft Vikram Lander of Chandrayaan-2 on the surface of the moon at ISRO Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network (ISTRAC) centre in Bangalore early on September 7, 2019. India lost communication with its unmanned spacecraft on September 7 just before it was due to land on the Moon, in a major setback to the country's lunar ambitions amid renewed interest in Earth's satellite. / AFP / Manjunath Kiran
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The fate of an Indian effort to land a probe on the Moon’s southern pole was in doubt after the country’s space agency lost communication with the lander near the surface.

The Chandrayaan-2 craft’s descent was normal until communications with the lander, named Vikram, ended when it reached an altitude of 2.1 km in the early hours of Saturday in India.

The chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation, Kailasavadivoo Sivan, said in a live broadcast: "Vikram lander descent was as planned and normal performance was observed up to an altitude of 2.1 kilometres”.

A failure would deal a blow to India’s ambitious space programme.

The country was trying to become only the fourth nation to pull off a soft landing on the Moon, following the former Soviet Union, the US and China.

Chandrayaan-2, which means “Moon vehicle” in Sanskrit, was designed to analyse virgin territory on Earth’s closest neighbour for signs of water and helium-3.

“These are moments to be courageous, and courageous we will be!” Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote on Twitter.

“We remain hopeful and will continue working hard on our space programme.”

The Indian space agency will analyse data about the landing sequence, Mr Sivan said.

Other officials subsequently appeared on television to say that a planned media briefing on the landing attempt was cancelled while information was still being assessed.

The mission also has a lunar orbiter that continues to take images of the Moon and conduct other science experiments.

Its flight had suffered an inauspicious start. An initial launch attempt in mid-July was aborted minutes before lift-off because of a technical problem. The mission then launched on July 22 and entered a lunar orbit on August 20.

Space-faring nations, as well as billionaires Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson, are competing in an unofficial space race, from launching satellites to sending astronauts and tourists into space.

India and China are locked in a geopolitical space race of sorts as a way to assert regional dominance and establish a presence in space exploration.

China was the first country to land a rover on the far side of the Moon while India focused on being first at the southern pole, the same spot Nasa is targeting with its Artemis mission planned for 2024.

The lunar south pole has long been of interest to scientists.

The surface is believed to contain essential resources, while permanently shadowed craters are thought to hold millions of tons of water.

The hunt for helium-3, an isotope limited on Earth, is of particular importance because, if harnessed, it is so abundant on the Moon it could theoretically meet global energy demands for 250 years.

Mr Modi has sharpened India’s focus on space since coming to power in 2014, with a pipeline of ambitious flights.

India plans to send a mission to study the Sun next year, another to Venus three years later, and eventually establish its own space station.

It is also working on a $1.4 billion (Dh5.1 billion) Gaganyaan mission, which aims to put three Indian “gaganauts” — including at least one woman — into orbit.

At home, Chandrayaan-2 had captivated millions as the event turned into a symbol of national pride.