From the close-but-no-cigar files comes the second failed attempt by a country that is not the United States, China or Russia to stick a soft landing on the moon this year. Sorry, but close only counts when playing horseshoes.
Last Friday, millions of people in India, the world’s second most populated country behind China with about 1.3 billion residents, were glued to their TV sets as that nation attempted its first shot at landing a spacecraft on the moon. The lander, known as Vikram for the father of India’s space program, Vikram Sarabhai, appeared to be on target and slowly descending from lunar orbit to a planned soft landing on the moon’s dark side near the south pole.
But less than two miles from the surface something went wrong and communications with the lander were lost. Instead of a “One small step ...” moment, millions of Indians breathed a collective, “Oops.”
The failure comes just a few months after Israel attempted a similar feat with its first-ever moon landing featuring that country’s Beresheet spacecraft. Communications were also lost with Beresheet just prior to touchdown back in April. The lander crashed and presumably broke up on the lunar surface spilling thousands of moss piglets and human DNA samples on the moon. Moss piglets, also known as water bears or tardigrades, are tiny, maggot-like creatures capable of living on the lunar surface.
Unlike Beresheet, India, since Friday, has managed to locate Vikram and determine that its spacecraft landed intact but tilted to one side. The nation’s space agency said it will continue attempts to regain contact with the lander. What went wrong with Vikram in that final mile or so before touching down on the moon remains open to speculation. So here goes.
• India was relying on ATT for its communications link with Vikram. Last week here in Oxford, many ATT customers lost their internet service because of some network snafu. When I called ATT’s customer service I got someone with an Indian accent. When the service was restored, apparently all of our modems had reset to their original network names and passwords meaning those of us who had changed those names and passwords had to reset all our devices connected to them. Maybe India should try that with Vikram.
• Vikram was attacked by thousands of moss piglets freed by the crash of the Israeli spacecraft. In the months since they were released on the lunar surface they’ve had time to be bombarded by cosmic rays which caused them to grow to enormous size, evolve a moss piglet civilization on the moon and see the Indian spacecraft as an invading force.
• The tilt of the Vikram spacecraft on the lunar surface could be a clue. Perhaps whoever was flying it on its descent was also attempting to get ketchup out of one of those new bottles Heinz is marketing. The bottle’s label is placed at an angle which the company says, when rotated upright, provides the perfect pouring trajectory for ketchup.
Personally, my money is on the moss piglets.