NEW DELHI — A day after India lost contact with a robotic spacecraft that was launched toward the moon’s South Pole, the chairman of the country’s space agency said on Sunday that the lander had been detected on the moon’s surface.
K. Sivan, the director of the Indian Space Research Organization, told national news outlets that a thermal image had been taken by the Chandrayaan-2 mission’s orbiter. He said it was still unclear whether the lander was damaged, though he expected it had experienced a “hard landing.”
“We are trying to establish a contact,” he was quoted as saying by Asian News International.
The thermal image from the orbiter has not been released publicly. A spokesman for the space agency did not respond to requests for comment on Sunday.
For years, Indian engineers have prepared for a landing near the unexplored South Pole, following up an Indian mission that orbited the moon and helped to confirm the presence of water ice in the lunar craters. A successful landing on the moon would have made India the fourth nation to accomplish such a feat, after the United States, Russia and China.
The lander carried a six-wheel rover, the Indian flag and equipment to determine the composition of moon rocks and make other measurements.
The cost-effective mission has stirred a strong sense of patriotism in India. Before the lander’s rapid descent early Saturday, space enthusiasts gathered for viewing parties, and a news channel live-streamed a choir singing a Hindi song, “Saare Jahan Se Accha,” or “Better Than All the World.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has cited the Chandrayaan-2 mission as evidence of India’s increasing global importance in science and technology. The mission also offered his nationalist government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, a reprieve from rising unemployment and international criticism of a crackdown in the disputed territory of Kashmir.
Mr. Modi flew to the city of Bangalore on Friday to watch the landing attempt from the space agency’s control room.
The landing left no room for error. The communications delay with the spacecraft across such a distance — the moon is more than 200,000 miles from Earth — meant that the space agency had limited control over the descent. Dr. Sivan, the agency’s chief, has called the computer-programmed landing “15 minutes of terror.”
The lander had around 15 minutes to slow from 2,000 miles per hour at a starting altitude of about 20 miles. Most of the descent seemed to go as planned. Four of the lander’s engines fired to slow it down quickly as it headed toward its landing site on a high, flat plain near the South Pole. Scientists cheered from the control room. Journalists covering the event from a nearby tent climbed on chairs to get a better view of the live telecast.
But communication cut out at an altitude of 1.3 miles. It appeared that the lander had been traveling too fast during the descent.
Scientists slumped over their desks and rose to put on their jackets. A widely shared video filmed later Saturday showed Mr. Modi embracing Dr. Sivan as he began to cry.
“Space is hard,” NASA said on Twitter about the mission, writing that India had “inspired us with your journey.”
Other missions to land on the moon have ended in disappointment. This year, an Israeli nonprofit organization sent a small robotic spacecraft named Beresheet to the moon, but communication was lost near the surface, and the spacecraft appears to have crashed on the moon. A command to shut off the engine had been sent incorrectly.
The Israeli and Indian missions cost $100 million to $150 million, far less than those typically launched by the European Space Agency and NASA, which has been preparing for its own low-cost robotic moon missions.
Chandrayaan-2 launched in July from southeast India and took a longer route to the moon that was intended to save fuel. A few days ago, the 3,200-pound lander, named Vikram, after Vikram A. Sarabhai, the father of the Indian space program, separated from the orbiter and maneuvered toward the moon’s surface.
India may still try to make a moon landing, and plans are in the works for robotic explorers that will head to Venus, Mars and the sun. India also intends to send astronauts into Earth orbit aboard its own spacecraft in the next decade.
In a speech on Saturday, Mr. Modi said the landing attempt had been a learning opportunity.
“As important as the final result is the journey and the effort,” he said. “I can proudly say that the effort was worth it, and so was the journey.”
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