India's space program will bounce back strong from the apparent failure of Friday's (Sept. 6) lunar landing attempt, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stressed.
The nation's Chandrayaan-2 moon orbiter dropped a lander called Vikram toward the lunar surface Friday afternoon. Everything went well for a while, but mission controllers lost contact with Vikram when the craft was just 1.3 miles (2.1 kilometers) above the gray dirt.
As of this writing, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) had still not officially declared Vikram lost; the latest ISRO update stated that descent data are still being analyzed. But Modi's comments strongly suggest that Vikram and Pragyan, the rover that was supposed to deploy from the lander, are dead.
"We came very close, but we will need to cover more ground in the times to come," Modi said during an address to the nation that was webcast live Friday night (Saturday morning India time). "As important as the final result is the journey and the effort. I can proudly say that the effort was worth it, and so was the journey."
The prime minister also heaped praise on the Chandrayaan-2 team, emphasizing that the scientists and engineers were going after ambitious firsts — India's first moon landing, and the first touchdown attempt so close to the lunar south pole. (Vikram's prime landing site was at 70.9 degrees south latitude.)
"To our scientists, I want to say, India is with you. You are exceptional professionals who have made an incredible contribution to national progress," Modi said. "True to your nature, you ventured into a place where no one had ever been before."
The prime minister also said that the country will continue to explore the final frontier.
"The learnings from today will make us stronger and better. There is a new dawn and a brighter tomorrow very soon," Modi said. "We are full of confidence that, when it comes to our space program, the best is yet to come.”
Indeed, India plans to develop a Chandrayaan-3 moon mission in the coming years, and the nation also intends to put humans on the lunar surface at some point. ISRO is working to send a second orbiter to Mars in the mid-2020s as well. (The nation's first Red Planet probe, Mangalyaan, has been studying Mars from orbit since September 2014.)
And there's still the other half of Chandrayaan-2 to consider. The mission's orbiter, which arrived at the moon last month, is scheduled to operate for at least a year. The spacecraft is using eight science instruments to study the moon in a variety of ways — creating detailed maps of the lunar surface, for example, and gauging the presence and abundance of water ice, especially in the south polar region.
To date, just three nations have soft-landed a spacecraft on the moon — the Soviet Union/Russia, the United States and China. The Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL and its partner Israel Aerospace Industries tried to make Israel the fourth earlier this year, but their Beresheet lander crashed during its April touchdown attempt.
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Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.