Chandrayaan-3 lander instrument starts serving! In a first, NASA orbiter 'pings' Vikram on Moon: Experiment explained

Meanwhile, the ISRO said on Friday that an instrument on the Chandrayaan-3 lander has started serving as a location marker near the lunar south pole. Chandrayaan-3’s Vikram module had touched down on the Moon on August 23, 2023.

What this experiment could mean? 

According to the NASA, this successful experiment “opens the door to a new style of precisely locating targets on the Moon’s surface”.

The US space agency informed that tracking the location of Earth-orbiting satellites from the ground is usually done using laser pulses directed toward the object and measuring the time it takes for the light to return.

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“But using the technique in reverse – to send laser pulses from a moving spacecraft to a stationary one to determine its precise location – has many applications at the Moon,” scientists said.

Scientists Xiaoli Sun said, “We’ve shown that we can locate our retroreflector on the surface from the Moon’s orbit…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.”

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Meanwhile, the ISRO said, “NASA’s LRA on Chandrayaan-3’s Vikram lander will continue to serve as a long-term geodetic station and a location marker on the lunar surface, benefitting current and future lunar missions.”

These measurements, apart from aiding in the precise determination of the spacecraft’s orbital position, will help refine the lunar geodetic frame. This would possibly reveal “insights into the Moon’s dynamics, internal structure, and gravitational anomalies”, the ISRO said.

When an how was the experiment carried out?

The experiment was carried out at 1:30 am Indian Standard Time (3 pm EST) on December 12, 2023. According to the NASA’s press release, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) pointed its laser altimeter instrument toward Vikram.

The lander was 62 miles, or 100 kilometres, away from LRO when LRO had transmitted laser pulses toward it. This location was near Manzinus crater in the Moon’s South Pole region.

“After the orbiter (LRO) registered light that had bounced back from a tiny NASA retroreflector aboard Vikram, NASA scientists knew their technique had finally worked,” the NASA said.

How a retroreflector can help?

ISRO Vikram lander has “only 2 inches, or 5 centimeters, wide” NASA retroreflector on it. It is called a Laser Retroreflector Array. Scientists said the device is simple and durable. It “requires neither power nor maintenance, and can last for decades”, they said, adding that its configuration allows the retroreflector to reflect light coming in from any direction back to its source.

The NASA said retroreflectors can be used for many applications in science and exploration. “By reflecting light back to Earth, the suitcase-size retroreflectors revealed that the Moon is moving away from our planet at a rate of 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) per year,” it added.

The space agency said they’re used on the International Space Station (ISS) as precision markers that help cargo-delivery spacecraft dock autonomously.

“In the future, they could guide Artemis astronauts to the surface in the dark, for example, or mark the locations of spacecraft already on the surface, helping astronauts or uncrewed spacecraft land next to them,” it added.

But, what’s the problem?

According to the NASA, the biggest hurdle to their immediate adoption is that LRO’s altimeter is the only laser instrument orbiting the Moon for now. The instrument wasn’t designed to pinpoint a target; since 2009, the altimeter – called LOLA – has been responsible for mapping the Moon’s topography to prepare for missions to the surface.

“We would like LOLA to point to this Oreo-sized target and hit it every time, which is hard,” Daniel Cremons, a NASA Goddard scientist who works with Sun, was quoted by the press release as saying. It took the altimeter eight tries to contact Vikram’s retroreflector.

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Published: 19 Jan 2024, 03:57 PM IST

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