Chandrayaan-3's Vikram lander now serving as Moon's South Pole location marker - Hindustan Times

Chandrayaan-3's Vikram lander now serving as Moon's South Pole location marker, NASA confirms

Jan 19, 2024 05:14 PM IST

NASA confirms successful experiment with Chandrayaan 3 Vikram lander in accurately locating targets on the moon's surface

In a significant achievement for other space missions, a laser beam was transmitted and reflected between a device on ISRO's (Indian Space Research Organisation) Vikram lander lying on the lunar surface and an orbiting NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) spacecraft. The successful experiment paves the way for accurately locating targets on the moon's surface.

Chandrayaan 3 lander Vikram was spotted resting on the lunar surface.(ISRO)
Chandrayaan 3 lander Vikram was spotted resting on the lunar surface.(ISRO)

On December 12, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) directed its laser altimeter instrument towards a small NASA retroreflector aboard Vikram lander. Positioned approximately 100 kilometers away from the LRO, near the Manzinus crater in the moon's South Pole region, the Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA) successfully reflected the lights back, NASA confirmed on Thursday.

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NASA’s LRA was fitted on the Vikram lander under international collaboration with ISRO.

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What is a retroreflector?

The compact device, measuring only 5 cm wide, serves as a simple but robust method to reflect incoming light from any direction back to its source, minimising scattering. Requiring no maintenance and power-free, this retroreflector boasts a long lifespan lasting for decades.

The one on Vikram lander has eight quartz-corner-cube prisms arranged within a dome-shaped aluminum frame, enabling the retroreflector to efficiently reflect light back to its origin, regardless of the incoming direction.

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How would it help in determining a precise location?

Scientists employ a technique of beaming laser pulses toward objects and measuring the time it takes for the light to bounce back for tracking Earth-orbiting satellites from the ground.

However, the use of retroreflectors allows to reverse this process, employing the technique to send laser pulses from a moving spacecraft to a stationary one, determining its precise location. According to a NASA report, this technique has numerous applications on the moon.

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Various applications of retroreflector

Retroreflectors are versatile tools used in science and exploration, with a long history of deployment on the moon since the Apollo era, said NASA.

•The lunar retroreflectors, reflecting light back to Earth, provided valuable data indicating that the moon is gradually moving away from our planet at a rate of 3.8 centimetres per year.

• While various Lunar Retroreflective Arrays (LRAs) have been placed on the moon over the years, the one on Chandrayaan-3 is distinctive as it is a compact version and is currently the sole retroreflector near the moon's south pole.

•The latest generation of smaller retroreflectors offers even more applications than their larger predecessors.

• On the International Space Station, these miniature retroreflectors serve as precision markers, aiding cargo-delivery spacecraft in autonomous docking.

• Looking ahead, they might guide Artemis astronauts during lunar landings in low-light conditions.

• Additionally, these retroreflectors could be used to mark the positions of existing spacecraft on the lunar surface, assisting astronauts or unmanned spacecraft in landing near them for exploration.

LRA on Chandrayaan 3 is special

The LRA on Chandrayaan-3 is the only one available near the south pole currently. It will continue to serve as a long-term geodetic station and a location marker on the lunar surface, benefitting current and future lunar missions, ISRO said.

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More retroreflectors to land on the moon

Multiple NASA retroreflectors are set to be transported on both public and private moon landers, NASA said.

Among them, one is scheduled for deployment on JAXA's (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) SLIM lander, expected to touch down on the moon on Friday. Another retroreflector is being carried by Intuitive Machines, a private company planning to launch its spacecraft to the moon in mid-February.

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