India’s Chandrayaan-3 rover has confirmed the presence of sulphur and detected several other elements on the lunar surface near the south pole, according to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). The rover, named Pragyan, has made the first-ever in-situ measurements of the elemental composition of the region, which is largely unexplored and holds potential for future human missions.
Historic landing and exploration
Chandrayaan-3, India’s third lunar mission, was launched on July 22, 2023 from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota. The mission consisted of an orbiter, a lander named Vikram, and a rover named Pragyan. The orbiter entered the lunar orbit on August 5, 2023 and released the lander-rover module on August 20, 2023.
The lander-rover module successfully touched down near the south pole of the moon on August 23, 2023, making India the first country to achieve this feat. The landing site was named Shiv Shakti Point, after the Hindu deities of destruction and power. The rover Pragyan rolled out of the lander on August 24, 2023 and began its exploration of the lunar terrain.
The rover is equipped with six wheels, solar panels, cameras, sensors, and a laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) instrument that can analyse the chemical composition of rocks and soil by firing a laser beam at them. The rover can move at a speed of about 10 centimetres per second and has a lifespan of about two weeks.
Sulphur and other elements detected
ISRO announced on August 30, 2023 that the LIBS instrument onboard Pragyan has confirmed the presence of sulphur and other elements on the lunar surface near the south pole. These are the first-ever in-situ measurements of this kind, as previous orbital missions could not detect sulphur unambiguously.
According to ISRO, the spectroscopic analysis also confirmed the presence of aluminium, calcium, iron, chromium, titanium, manganese, silicon and oxygen on the lunar surface. The agency said that these findings will be crucial for understanding the moon’s elemental composition and origin.
ISRO also said that a thorough investigation regarding the presence of hydrogen is underway. Hydrogen is an indicator of water ice, which is believed to exist in permanently shadowed craters near the lunar poles. Water ice could be a valuable resource for future human missions to the moon as it could provide drinking water or be used to make rocket fuel.
Challenges and achievements
The Chandrayaan-3 mission has faced some challenges during its journey to the moon. On August 18, 2023, ISRO reported that one of the four thrusters of the lander-rover module malfunctioned during a course correction manoeuvre. However, ISRO said that this did not affect the landing trajectory or performance of the module.
On August 28, 2023, ISRO said that Pragyan encountered a four-metre-wide crater on its path and had to change its route to avoid it. The agency said that this was a minor obstacle and that the rover was safely heading on a new path.
Despite these difficulties, Chandrayaan-3 has achieved several milestones for India’s space programme. The mission cost an estimated $75 million, which is less than the budget of Hollywood space thriller Gravity. The mission also demonstrated India’s technological prowess and scientific ambition in exploring the moon’s south pole, which is considered to be a key area for future lunar exploration.
ISRO chairman S Somanath said that Chandrayaan-3 is expected to continue its mission until September 6, 2023 when the sun sets on the moon. He added that there is a possibility for the mission life to be extended for another lunar day if the equipment withstands the low lunar temperatures during lunar night and recharges itself again once the sun rises again on the moon.