Another Leap Forward: India’s Historic Moon Landing and the Space Competition Underway

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Indian lunar lander Chandrayaan-3 successfully touched down on the lunar surface on August 23, 2023, making India the fourth nation to successfully land on the Moon and the first to land in the south pole region. This historic accomplishment further cements India’s rise as a global space power at a time of heightened international competition in space.

Q1: What is the significance of India’s Moon landing?

A1: The Chandrayaan-3 mission (“moon vehicle” in Hindi and Sanskrit), led by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), is a mark of national prestige. The mission sets India up to lead internationally in the exploration of frozen water on the Moon and demonstrate its scientific and technical prowess, which Prime Minister Modi remarked, “are the foundation of a bright future for our nation.”

ISRO’s space exploration program is part of a broad government strategy to realize the scientific, economic, and security benefits of space capabilities. India’s space program is also seen as a pathway for attracting young Indians into high-technology fields and for ushering in a more technically advanced society. Indian communications satellites orbiting the Earth can improve connectivity across rural areas, navigation satellites can aid mariners, and imagery satellites can support disaster relief operations as well as monitor Chinese military developments. India also maintains its own fleet of space launch vehicles that loft satellites from governments and commercial companies alike.

This lunar mission further raises India’s profile as a destination for developing new technologies and a partner in international endeavors. The Modi government has sought to grow an indigenous commercial space ecosystem and attract private investment into Indian space startups, enabled by policy reforms in 2020 that allowed privatization in the space sector. Chandrayaan-3 also provides a confidence boost as ISRO pursues more firsts in space exploration, including its first solar mission later in 2023 (Aditya L1) and first human spaceflight mission (Gaganyaan).

Q2: Why land on the Moon’s south pole?

A2: The south pole region of the Moon is believed to contain frozen water, with large deposits hidden in shadowed craters. Water and its elemental ingredients—hydrogen and oxygen—will be critical to support human activity on the Moon. It can provide drinking water and oxygen, power lunar habitats and equipment, and fuel rockets for longer journeys to Mars.

Geological surveys indicate that the Moon holds mineral stores, including rare-earth metals used in electronics, and helium that could generate energy in nuclear fusion reactors. The difficulty will be mining these elements, extracting them from lunar rocks and soil, and converting them into usable forms.

The Chandrayaan-3 mission will start the necessary work to understand what is contained within the lunar surface. Within a few hours of the successful landing, ISRO deployed a small, solar-powered rover, Pragyan (or, “wisdom” in Sanskrit), that will explore the lunar surface over the next two weeks. Both the landing craft and the rover contain various scientific instruments to collect data on the mineral composition, thermal properties, and seismic activity around the landing site.

Q3: How difficult is it to land on the Moon? Why did Russia fail a few days earlier while India succeeded?

A3: The contrast between India’s successful lunar landing and the failure of Russia’s Luna-25 lander four days earlier is a reminder of the technical challenges and operational risks associated with space and missions to the Moon. It is not just Russia. A Japanese company aiming to be the first to land a commercial spacecraft on the Moon was unsuccessful earlier in 2023.

The final descent to the lunar surface—the last 13 minutes— is particularly hazardous. It was for the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969 and remains so today. Thrusters are fired on the spacecraft to position it for de-orbit and to control its descent. With minimal atmosphere to slow the spacecraft down, the thrusters are used as brakes to reduce the spacecraft’s speed from 1.68 kilometers (km) per second (3,800 miles per hour) to nearly zero, all while sensors precisely measure altitude to ensure a soft landing. All of this is accomplished by flight operators in mission control some 384,400 km (238,900 miles) away with a 2.5 second communications lag.

According to reports, contact was lost with the Russian Luna-25 spacecraft as it was adjusting its orbit to descend to the lunar surface. The craft subsequently crashed into the Moon. While Russia has seen success in other aspects of its space program over the years, including ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station, it had not exercised its technical base on a lunar mission in 47 years. Russia’s space program has been beset by corruption, reduced funding, Western sanctions, and brain drain, which accelerated after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Q4: Why so much attention on the Moon? What does it mean for the broader space race?

A4: As captured in the CSIS report Fly Me to the Moon, both governments and commercial companies are driven to pursue lunar missions for national pride, scientific discovery, domestic space industrial development, international partnership advancement, and economic benefits, including access to lunar resources. Analysts estimate over 100 missions are planned across the next decade to the Moon and cislunar space (i.e., the area between geosynchronous Earth orbit at 36,000 km and the Moon at 384,400 km from Earth).

These endeavors present opportunities for expanding international cooperation. Several planned missions reflect such partnerships, for example: India and the United States; India and Japan; Europe, Japan, Canada, and the United States; and Japan and the United Arab Emirates. The Europe Space Agency and Russia were planning joint lunar missions, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led the agency to terminate the partnership. China has a robust lunar exploration program: in 2019, it was the first to land a robotic rover on the far side of the Moon, and in 2021, Beijing and Moscow signed an agreement to cooperate on a joint lunar research station, inviting other nations to participate. NASA’s Artemis Program aims to establish a long-term presence on the Moon, working with a coalition of commercial and international partners.

Lunar missions will require technological advances in areas like autonomy, navigation, and communications that will benefit civil, commercial, and military space capabilities alike. They will also challenge international space law and policy. While the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 holds that no nation shall claim sovereignty over the Moon, it is less clear on guidelines for commercial exploits. NASA’s Artemis Accords attempts to address this with a set of principles to guide space exploration, including transparency, sharing of scientific data, and deconflicting activities. Twenty-eight nations have signed on as of July 2023, including India; Russia and China have not.

Finally, such lunar pursuits are occurring against a backdrop of heightened geopolitical tension and are only one facet of a broader global space competition underway that present both opportunities and challenges. Greater access to space technologies and lower launch costs have led to a burgeoning commercial space sector and growing space economy. As of 2022, 90 countries now operate in space and, while Russia’s program shows signs of decline, Beijing has ambitions “to become the world’s leading power,” including in space. Space capabilities are critical to national security, they connect people across the globe and aid in understanding the changing environment on Earth. However, the importance of space has also led to the expansion of threats against it, trends that CSIS captures in an annual Space Threat Assessment, and increasing focus on space security. The combination of scientific, economic, diplomatic, and security motivations will continue to drive both space exploration and the peaceful use of space. 

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