Here’s a great twist to the heartbreaking story of the loss of India’s Vikram moon lander, which had been scheduled to soft-land on September 6, 2019 (September 7 in the U.S.). Only minutes before touchdown, communications with the lander were lost, and the lander was not heard from again. It remained lost – crashed somewhere on the moon’s surface – until being found again by a Chennai-based engineer, Shanmuga Subramanian. He not only located the debris from the Vikram moon lander that scientists had been seeking. He also helped guide scientists to the spot where the lander had crashed, enabling NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to acquire the images on this page.
India had hoped to become the fourth nation to soft land on the moon successfully with its Chandrayaan 2 mission, which carried the lander to the moon. If it had succeeded, it would have followed the former Soviet Union, the U.S. and, as of 2019, China. The Chandrayaan 2 mission’s Vikram lander had been targeted for a highland smooth plain about 400 miles (600 km) from the moon’s south pole. But it wasn’t to be. The news of Vikram’s crash – conveyed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) – saddened space enthusiasts around the world, although, as NASA said in a statement:
Despite the loss, getting that close to the surface was an amazing achievement.
After the crash, space scientists around the world began scanning spacecraft images for signs of Vikram’s debris on the moon. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) team acquired images to make a mosaic of the approximate location on September 17, and released them on September 26. Many people have downloaded the mosaic to search for signs of Vikram, NASA said.
It was Shanmuga Subramanian – who runs the Facebook page Chennai Rains – who contacted the NASA project with the first positive identification of debris. A December 3, 2019, article by Manasa Rao at TheNewsMinute.com – which reports and writes specifically on issues in India – quoted Subramanian as saying:
I feel very happy that I could find the debris. I kept comparing picture by picture for almost a week and used to do it for seven hours a day.
After receiving Subramanian’s tip, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) team confirmed the identification by comparing before and after images. NASA explained:
When the images for the first mosaic were acquired the impact point was poorly illuminated and thus not easily identifiable. Two subsequent image sequences were acquired on October 14 and 15, and November 11. The LROC team scoured the surrounding area in these new mosaics and found the impact site (70.8810°S, 22.7840°E, 834 m elevation) and associated debris field. The November mosaic had the best pixel scale (0.7 meter) and lighting conditions (72° incidence angle).
The debris first located by Shanmuga is about 750 meters northwest of the main crash site and was a single bright pixel identification in that first mosaic (1.3 meter pixels, 84° incidence angle).
The November mosaic best shows the impact crater, ray and extensive debris field. The three largest pieces of debris are each about 2×2 pixels and cast a one pixel shadow.
Bottom line: A Chennai-based engineer, Shanmuga Subramanian, helped NASA find the crash-landing site of India’s Vikram moon lander. The lander – part of India’s Chandrayaan 2 mission – was scheduled to land on the moon on September 6, 2019 (September 7 in the U.S.), and crashed moments before touchdown.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.