Three robotic explorers launched by the Indian space agency Monday morning will attempt to land at the lunar south pole for the first time.
India's exploration mission to the moon shot off to a successful start early Monday. The Chandrayaan-2 mission, aiming to put robots at the lunar south pole for the first time, suffered several delays leading up to lift-off, but finally went off without a hitch. It was originally scheduled for July 14 but the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) postponed the departure less than an hour before launch due to a "technical snag."
The landmark mission departed from India's Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, north of Chennai, at 2:43 a.m. PT (5:43 a.m. ET), Monday July 22. Unlike the Apollo 11 mission, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this week, India's mission doesn't involve human astronauts. Rather, Chandrayaan-2 is carrying three lunar exploration robots that will be able to survey the moon from both the surface and the sky.
The payload of Chandrayaan-2 consists of a lunar orbiter, a lunar lander and a lunar rover and will be launched atop the ISRO-developed GSLV Mk-III rocket. That rocket is about half as powerful as the SpaceX Falcon 9 and will put Chandrayaan-2 into what's known as an "Earth parking orbit" before the module uses its own power to extend that orbit and eventually position itself for a lunar rendezvous.
Don't worry if you didn't manage to tune in to watch the historic launch live -- replays are available. ISRO handled livestreaming duties across its social media pages, which means you can relive the event at the ISRO Twitter or check out the agency's Facebook page. The agency's YouTube channel also covered the event.
Indian public broadcaster Doordarshan broadcast the launch live and you can watch that stream below (lift-off happens around 38 minutes in):
This is the sequel to Chandrayaan-1, an ISRO mission that launched 11 years ago featuring only a lunar orbiter. That orbiter reached the moon on Nov. 8, 2008, and then fired an impacter that struck the south pole. The material ejected from below the surface allowed ISRO to detect lunar water ice -- a valuable resource that could enable future exploration. Chandrayaan-2 will look to build on this monumental discovery from the ground.
Provided Chandrayaan-2 launches on time, it's expected to reach the moon on Sept. 6, 2019. If it can achieve the difficult feat of landing on the surface, India will become just the fourth nation to complete a soft landing in history, following the US, Russia and China, which has the Chang'e 4 rover operating on the far side of the moon.
The lander and rover are headed for the lunar south pole, exploring a scientifically important region that has been shown to contain water ice. The lunar lander, known as Vikram, and a rover, known as Pragyan, will set up shop in the south, unlike any previous mission to the moon. The proposed landing spot is between two craters, Manzinus C and Simpelius N.
A video of all the moon landing sites -- and Chandrayaan-2's proposed finishing spot -- is below:
All three of ISRO's robotic explorers have different lifespans and will be looking to achieve key science goals in their limited time exploring the moon. Chief among these goals is the ability to understand the composition of the moon, allowing for a deeper understanding of its origin and its evolution.
There are 12 payloads on board, with five on both the orbiter and lander and two on the rover. The lander will only operate for a single lunar day (two weeks on Earth). NASA is also hitching a ride on the lunar lander with a laser retroreflector, a device that can help measure the distance between the Earth and Moon.
The orbiter will operate for a year in a circular orbit around the poles and carries radar and spectrometers that will enable study of the moon's surface and exosphere. Predominantly, these instruments should enable a greater understanding of the moon's water ice deposits. A mapping camera will also provide a 3D map of the terrain.
The Pragyan rover, powered by the sun and AI, will cross the lunar surface at the blistering pace of 1 centimeter per second carrying instruments that can assess the molecules present on the moon.
Published July 10
Update, July 14: ISRO announce launch called off
Update, July 18: ISRO announce new launch date
Update, July 22: ISRO livestreaming details for second attempt
Update, July 22: Added details of successful lift-off