NEW DELHI – India became the first country to land a spacecraft near the moon’s south pole on Wednesday – a historic voyage to uncharted territory that scientists believe could hold vital reserves of frozen water, and a technological triumph for the world's most populous nation.
After a failed attempt to land on the moon in 2019, India now joins the United States, the Soviet Union and China as only the fourth country to achieve this milestone. A lander with a rover inside touched down on the lunar surface at 6:04 p.m. local time, sparking celebrations around India, including in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru, where space scientists watching the landing erupted in cheers and applause.
The successful mission showcases India's rising standing as a technology and space powerhouse and dovetails with the image of the country that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to project: an ascendant country asserting its place among the global elite.
“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 tri-colored flag while watching the landing from South Africa, where he is participating in the BRICS nations summit.
The lunar rover will slide down a flap from the lander within hours or a day and conduct experiments, including an analysis of the mineral composition of the lunar surface, said S. Somnath, chairman of the state-run Indian Space Research Organization.
The mission, which began more than a month ago at an estimated cost of $75 million, is expected to last another two weeks. Somnath said that India would next attempt a manned lunar mission.
Nuclear-armed India grew to become the world's fifth-largest economy last year, and the success of the lunar mission will likely help Modi's popularity ahead of a crucial general election next year.
India’s success comes just days after Russia's Luna-25, which was aiming for the same lunar region, spun into an uncontrolled orbit and crashed. It would have been the first successful Russian lunar landing after a gap of 47 years. Russia's head of the state-controlled space corporation Roscosmos attributed the failure to the lack of expertise due to the long break in lunar research that followed the last Soviet mission to the moon in 1976.
Excited and anxious people across India crowded around televisions in offices, shops, restaurants and homes. Thousands prayed Tuesday for the success of the mission with oil lamps on the river banks, temples and religious places, including the holy city of Varanasi in northern India.
As the lander approached the lunar surface, dozens of people in a government-run planetarium started praying with folded hands. They switched to cheering and clapping once the lander touched down.
A man waved a banner reading ''The Moon in India's arms.”
Shrini Singh, a New Delhi resident, said she got goose bumps. ''It's a very happy moment … you can see the energy. It's beyond words.”
Mitakshi Sinha, a student, said the successful mission motivated her. “And now I also want to be part of ISRO,” she said, referring to the country's space agency.
Congratulations poured in from around the world, cementing India's emergence as a modern space power.
“Your success will power the imagination and light the future of people around the world,” the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.
“Incredible!” European Space Agency's director general Josef Aschbacher tweeted.
NASA's former science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen, who now works at ETH Zurich, a public research university in Switzerland where he is leading its space initiative, said he felt proud of the achievement.
India's Chandrayaan-3 – “moon craft” in Sanskrit – took off from a launchpad in Sriharikota in southern India on July 14.
Many countries and private companies are interested in the south pole region because permanently shadowed craters may hold frozen water that could help future astronaut missions use it as a potential source of drinking water or to make rocket fuel.
The six-wheeled lander and rover module of Chandrayaan-3 is configured with payloads that would provide data to the scientific community on the properties of lunar soil and rocks, including chemical and elemental compositions.
Japan plans to launch a lunar lander to the moon over the weekend as part of an X-ray telescope mission, and two U.S. companies also are vying to put landers on the moon by the end of the year, one of them at the south pole. In the coming years, NASA plans to land astronauts at the lunar south pole, taking advantage of the frozen water in craters.