SPACE.com Columnist Leonard David

NASA moon orbiter beams laser off Indian lander in historic 1st

a gold metal orb/circle with other circles within, inside each are three bisecting lines. all tones of gold.
An LRA (Laser Retroreflector Array) is a collection of eight reflectors that enable precise measurements of the distance between two spacecraft. (Image credit: NASA TV)

Reflect on this!

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) recently bounced a laser off India's Vikram moon lander, marking a space-communications first.

Vikram touched down near the lunar south pole on Aug. 23, 2023 on India's pioneering Chandrayaan-3 mission, which also included a rover named Pragyan. Vikram carried on its body the tiny NASA Laser Retroreflector Array, or LRA for short.

Related: NASA's Lunar Retroreflector Network could make landing on the moon much easier

Bounce back

The laser light show between LRO and Vikram took place on Dec. 12, 2023, with the orbiter transmitting laser pulses toward the lander and then registering the light that bounced back.

Vikram was some 62 miles (100 kilometers) from LRO at the time, silently sitting near Manzinus crater in the moon's south pole region. (Vikram and Pragyan aced their surface missions, then went silent about two weeks after touchdown, as expected.)

"We've showed that we can locate our retroreflector on the surface from the moon's orbit," said Xiaoli Sun, who led the team at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, that developed the retroreflector placed on Vikram as part of a partnership between NASA and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

"The next step is to improve the technique so that it can become routine for missions that want to use these retroreflectors in the future," Sun said in a NASA statement.

An LRA consists of eight tiny retroreflectors mounted on a small, high hemispherical platform.  (Image credit: NASA TV)

More to come

Several NASA retroreflectors are slated to fly aboard public and private moon landers — including one device carried by Astrobotic's troubled Peregrine spacecraft, which is set to reenter Earth's atmosphere on Jan. 18 due to a propulsion mishap.

Another Laser Retroreflector Array is onboard Japan's SLIM lander, due to land on the moon on Jan. 19.

Also, an LRA is onboard Intuitive Machines' Nova-C lunar lander, which is set to launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in mid-February. Intuitive Machines will carry six NASA payloads, including the retroreflector, under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative.

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.