India is first to lunar south pole. Here’s why it matters

This NASA image, showing areas of the moon’s south pole that are most likely to hold deposits of water ice, was assembled with data gathered by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Water sources are seen as a key element in supporting an ongoing human presence on the moon and could help provide fuel for future space missions launched from the lunar surface.
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India became the first nation to land a spacecraft near the moon’s south pole on Wednesday, winning a multination race to reach the area and joining an elite group of countries that have successfully landed on the Earth’s sole satellite.

The Indian Space Research Organization tweeted about its efforts to deploy a small rover from the Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft later on Wednesday and has plans to conduct experiments for the next two weeks in an area that is believed to hold deposits of water ice. The landing makes India the fourth country, in addition to the U.S., Russia and China, to have landed spacecraft on the moon.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi watched the landing from South Africa, where he is participating in the BRICS nations summit.

“India is now on the moon. India has reached the south pole of the moon — no other country has achieved that. We are witnessing history,” Modi said as he waved the Indian tricolored flag, per The Associated Press.

In a surge of activity that echoes the multinational race to plant the first flag at the Earth’s south pole around the turn of the 20th century, the world’s leaders in extraterrestrial exploration have been vying to be the first to do the same at the lunar south pole. And all are keenly interested in finding out more about a single, precious commodity on the planet.

Water.

Russia was poised to be the first nation to land a spacecraft near the moon’s south pole on Monday but the state-run space corporation Roscosmos reported its Luna-25 lander ran into trouble and crash-landed on the surface of the moon on Saturday.

India’s Chandrayaan-3 had been in lunar orbit since earlier this month before its landing on Wednesday.

While the failed Luna-25 and the Chandrayaan-3 are both unmanned probes on missions to gather further information on lunar water sources, the U.S has its own plans for deeper exploration of the moon’s south pole. But NASA has a grander vision in place, the multiphase Artemis program, and instead of sending a remote probe, the U.S. space agency has plans underway to send a manned mission to the lunar south pole, which would be the first human return to the surface of the moon since the final Apollo moon visit in December 1972.

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Scientists are accumulating mounting evidence that water ice could exist on or near the moon’s surface and believe one of the most likely areas to find it could be in permanently shaded locations near the satellite’s south pole. Water access will be a necessary component in any plans for a long-term human presence on the moon as a life necessity, source of oxygen production, a potential material for shielding against constant radiation bombardment, and is a material that can be refined into its base components of oxygen and hydrogen to fuel potential rocket launches from the lunar surface.

While human colonization of the moon may sound more like the plot of a science fiction tale than a workable plan, NASA is aiming for a manned mission to the moon in late 2025 and believes components for a moon base could start ferrying from Earth in the 2030s.

In 2020, NASA unveiled plans to build a single moon base in the south pole region as part of its long-range Artemis program goals but earlier this year offered an update on how that might play out.

At a space symposium in April, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems development, Jim Free, said the agency’s Artemis program may ultimately build several bases around the moon instead of a single Artemis Base Camp at the lunar south pole as unveiled in 2020, according to a report from Space.com.

“It’s really hard to say we’re going to have a single base camp,” Free told reporters at the symposium. “Because if we miss a launch window, we might have to wait a month to go back to that place.”

NASA says returning astronauts to the moon and continuing to work toward establishing permanent moon bases will accommodate greatly expanded scientific study of the lunar environment while also laying the groundwork for future deep space exploration missions.

“With Artemis missions, NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the moon, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before,” NASA said in a web posting. “We will collaborate with commercial and international partners and establish the first long-term presence on the moon. Then, we will use what we learn on and around the moon to take the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars.”