India has launched an ambitious mission to the Moon

On Monday, an Indian rocket launched a spacecraft bound for the Moon from Sriharikota, a barrier island off the Bay of Bengal coast. This Chandrayaan-2 mission is the second spacecraft India has sent to the Moon, and it represents a significant effort to explore the lunar surface and its potential as a source for water ice.

The GSLV Mark III rocket lifted off Monday after an eight-day delay due to a technical issue, and the launch proceeded normally. “Today is a historical day for space and science and technology in India,” K. Sivan, chair of the Indian Space Research Organization, said after the launch. “I’m extremely happy to announce that GSLV Mark III successfully injected Chandrayaan-2 into the defined orbit.”

Although this is India’s most powerful rocket, the GSLV vehicle only has a little more than one-third the lift capacity of a Falcon 9 rocket, so the 3.85-ton payload must follow a circuitous path through space in order to gain enough energy to reach, and then settle into lunar orbit. It is due to reach orbit around the Moon in September.

After that point, on Sept. 7, the Vikram lander and Pragyan rover will separate from the orbiter and descend to the surface of the Moon, targeting a region near 70 degrees south on the lunar surface. In doing so, India will attempt to become just the fourth country—after the United States, Russia, and China—to successfully softly land a spacecraft on the Moon’s surface.

In addition to a small rover, the Indian lander will carry 14 scientific payloads. The primary goal is to assess the lunar environment and attempt to map potential deposits of water ice on the Moon. The mission is scheduled to last about 14 Earth days, the length of a lunar day when sunlight is available. The orbiter will remain in operation for a year.

Previously, India flew the Chandrayaan-1 mission to the Moon in 2008. This consisted of a lunar orbiter and an impactor that helped confirm the existence of water ice on the Moon. That discovery helped kick off something of a global race back to the Moon, in which India, China, and the United States have all developed and begun to fly missions to assess the amount and availability of this water for a variety of purposes, including the production of rocket fuel by breaking the water into hydrogen and oxygen.

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