Amateur Space Enthusiast Helps NASA Locate Crashed Indian Lunar Lander

Amateur Space Enthusiast Helps NASA Locate Crashed Indian Lunar Lander

Three months after the Vikram lander slammed into the Moon, NASA has confirmed the exact location of the crash site. The space agency is crediting Shanmuga Subramanian—an Indian app developer and amateur space sleuth—for spotting the scattered remains of the lost probe.

It’s not everyday you get applauded by NASA for making an important discovery, so we can only imagine the excitement Subramanian must’ve felt yesterday when he posted this tweet.

Subramanian, a mechanical engineer and app developer, found the debris field while meticulously surveying a photograph taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) a few days after the crash. NASA released the photo—a mosaic image of the likely area in which the Vikram lander hit—on September 26, 2019, in the hopes that the public might help to locate the fallen probe and its debris field.

The strategy worked, as NASA officially confirmed the location of the crash site in a tweet yesterday.

Launched in July 2019 as part of the Chandrayaan-2 mission, the Vikram lunar lander was India’s effort to become just the fourth country ever to land a probe on the Moon. Sadly, and in a scene eerily reminiscent of Israel’s failed Beresheet lunar mission a few months prior, the probe failed to make a soft landing.

During the early hours of September 7, with millions of excited Indian citizens watching, the probe went silent when it was 2.1 kilometers above the lunar surface. Failing to slow down, the probe smashed into the Moon at an estimated 180 kilometers per hour (110 miles per hour). The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) attempted to make contact with the lander for weeks afterwards and eventually gave up.

Subramanian spotted the debris field in early October, but it took NASA several weeks to confirm the discovery. An annotated image of the crash site shows numerous bits and pieces scattered across an area that extends for several kilometers.

In an email sent to Subramanian, LROC deputy project scientist John Keller apologised for the delay, saying “we needed to be certain of our interpretation of the observation as well as making sure that all stakeholders had an opportunity to comment before we could announce the results.”

As for the cause of the failed landing, ISRO says the fatal error was a glitch having to do with the probe’s guidance software. Undaunted by the setback, India is planning to try again with the Chandrayaan-3 mission, which could land on the Moon as early as November 2020.