India is poised to make history on Friday when it attempts to land a spacecraft on the moon. If the landing succeeds, India will become the fourth nation to put a landing craft on the moon and the first to land near the lunar south pole.
Only the U.S., Russia and China have landed spacecraft on the moon. An attempt by Israel in April failed.
The touchdown is scheduled to take place from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. EDT on Friday (1:30 a.m. and 2:30 a.m. in India), according to the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). In advance of the landing, the Vikram lander has separated from its Chandrayaan-2 orbiter, which launched into space on July 22 and has been circling the moon since Aug. 20.
The landing will be live-streamed by Indian broadcaster Doordarshan National starting at 3:30 p.m. EDT, and on the YouTube channel of the Indian government's press information bureau.
The 3,200-pound lander is carrying a six-wheeled rover named Pragyan as well as a suite of scientific instruments.
Plans call for the Vikram lander to touch down on a relatively flat plain between two craters. But like all landings on other celestial bodies, this will be a tricky one because of the complicated sequence of rocket firings needed to bring a spacecraft slowly to the surface. In a press briefing in August, ISRO chairman Kailasavadivoo Sivan called these sequences the mission's "most terrifying moments."
Once on the lunar surface, the Vikram lander and its rover will conduct experiments on seismic activity — commonly referred to as "moonquakes" — and create detailed maps of the south pole region, which along with its northern counterpart is known to contain deposits of water ice within perpetually shadowed craters.
Scientists hope to gain a better understanding of the origins of the deposits and determine whether it might be possible to mine them to obtain water for future space missions, said Timothy Swindle, director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
"We know that there's water there, but we don't know very much about it — how much there is, how it got there," Swindle said. "The more we can learn, the better, in part because if we want to explore the moon that would be a really great resource for human exploration."
Water from the deposits might prove useful for moon bases and could potentially be separated into hydrogen and oxygen that could be used as rocket fuel for missions to Mars and other far-flung destinations.
The lander and rover are designed to operate on the moon for 14 days — roughly equivalent to a single "lunar day." The Chandrayaan-2 orbiter, which has its own instruments for studying the ice deposits, will continue to circle the moon for a year.
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