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India continuing work on moon landing and crewed spaceflight plans despite delays

An artist's depiction of the Chandrayaan-2 lander, Vikram, preparing to alight on the lunar surface. The procedure occurred on Sept. 6, 2019, but appears to have gone wrong, with the Indian space agency losing contact with the lander late in the maneuver.
An artist's depiction of the Chandrayaan-2 lander, Vikram, preparing to alight on the lunar surface. The procedure occurred on Sept. 6, 2019, but appears to have gone wrong, with the Indian space agency losing contact with the lander late in the maneuver. (Image credit: ISRO)

India's second attempt at landing a spacecraft on the moon will likely be pushed to 2023, according to the head of the country's space agency.

S. Somanath, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), told Indian news channel NewsX that the Chandrayaan 3 lunar lander is in the assembly phase but teams are still testing vital systems, meaning the launch, previously slated for August, could be delayed until next year.

"Currently, we are testing the propulsion system because, you know, the last time [we] had a problem with that,” Somnath said. The comment referred to the 2019 Chandrayaan 2 mission, which included an orbiter, a lander and a rover. The moon orbiter has been operating successfully for more than two years, but the Vikram lander suffered a hard landing after a loss of control over the thrust of the spacecraft. 

Related: How India's moon crash wasn't really a failure

To avoid a similar incident with Chandrayaan 3, ISRO has made adjustments to the lander.

"There is a change in the propulsion system. … It is undergoing testing at the liquid propulsion center at Mahendragiri," Somanath said. "Teams are testing the integration of the propulsion, computer and sensor systems." 

While the data from the tests have been very good, ISRO is proceeding carefully. "We would like to go very, very cautiously this time, because we know how to go to the moon," Somanath said. "It's well proven. The only thing that we need is to learn how it lands. And it has to be error-free to the best of our abilities."

The Chandrayaan 3 mission includes both a new lander and a rover but not an orbiter. Similar to Chandrayaan 2, the mission is expected to target a near-polar landing area, and will operate for a single lunar day (14 Earth days) on the surface; it will not be capable of surviving the extreme cold of a lunar night.  

S. Somanath, then director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Center, stands next to a scale model of India's Gaganyaan crew module in 2020. (Image credit: Pallava Bagla/Corbis via Getty Images)

Human spaceflight 

ISRO's crewed Gaganyaan mission is also moving ahead. Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd., a state-owned aerospace and defense company, delivered the first set of Gaganyaan hardware to ISRO on April 4, India Today reported.

The design of all systems and subsystems for Gaganyaan has been completed, Space Minister Jitendra Singh wrote in a response to a question submitted to the Lok Sabha, India's parliament, in March.

For the next steps, ISRO will test mission-abort sequences in August and December. The tests are designed to verify that emergency systems will be able to deliver astronauts to safety in the event of anomalies during launch. Abort tests will be carried out before India conducts orbital test flights of the Gaganyaan capsule. Only then can the first crewed launch attempt take place.

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Gaganyaan was announced in August 2018, with the aim of launching India's first crewed mission before the 75th anniversary of India's independence, to be marked on Aug. 15, 2022. In 2021 ISRO stated that he COVID-19 pandemic had delayed the first crewed flight into 2023. Test flights are now expected take place in 2023 if the abort tests are successful, but the first crewed flight may now only occur in 2024

The Gaganyaan spacecraft will launch on a modified Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle. The standard version of the launcher suffered a catastrophic failure in August 2021. The cause of the failure has been identified, Somanath told NewsX, and the rocket is now expected to be back in action in the second half of the year with the planned launch of the first NVS series navigation satellite, The Hindu reported.

Somanath said a 2022 space policy to provide guidance and regulation for India's private space endeavors has been drafted and will be released after its approval by Parliament.

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Andrew is a freelance space journalist with a focus on reporting on China's rapidly growing space sector. He began writing for Space.com in 2019 and writes for SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, New Scientist and others. Andrew first caught the space bug when, as a youngster, he saw Voyager images of other worlds in our solar system for the first time. Away from space, Andrew enjoys trail running in the forests of Finland. You can follow him on Twitter @AJ_FI (opens in new tab).