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India is set to land a robotic probe on the moon tomorrow

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Tomorrow India hopes to land a robotic probe on the moon. This will be India's second attempt. Another lander crashed in 2019. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has more on what success would mean for India's ambitions in space.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: The targeted landing site at this mission is near the lunar south pole, a place where craters are in permanent, icy darkness.

BRETT DENEVI: It is so cold that any water molecule gets stuck, potentially for billions of years.

BRUMFIEL: Brett Denevi is a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. She says that water could be a key resource for future missions and not just for drinking. The hydrogen and oxygen that make up H2O could be used for other things, too.

DENEVI: If you break it apart, you can make rocket fuel or breathable air for future astronauts on the surface.

BRUMFIEL: India's uncrewed Chandrayaan-3 mission will be the closest landing to the south pole yet. Jatan Mehta is an Indian journalist who covers all things lunar in his Moon Monday newsletter. Nations such as the U.S. and China have big plans for sending astronauts to the South Pole. Mehta says if India's lander gets to the region first, it'll send an important message.

JATAN MEHTA: India gets a seat on the table when talking about shaping lunar governance.

BRUMFIEL: The probe will also make measurements to the lunar soil and environment that could help future missions from any nation. This will be India's second attempt to land on the moon. The first one in 2019 ended in failure. But Mehta says it was a great learning opportunity for engineers at the Indian Space Research Organisation.

MEHTA: No matter how hard you try and how hard you test on Earth, you cannot simply simulate the actual lunar environment.

BRUMFIEL: As a result of the accident, engineers have beefed up Chandrayaan-3's software and hardware, creating multiple redundancies that should help it find its way down. Mehta thinks the odds it'll work are good.

MEHTA: Well, I would say the chances are pretty high, but obviously we can never be hundred percent in these scenarios.

BRUMFIEL: In recent years, missions out of Israel and Japan have failed. And just over the weekend, a Russian lander accidentally slammed into the moon. Planetary scientist Brett Denevi also works on a mission photographing the moon's surface. She's tired of all this lunar wreckage.

DENEVI: It's so heartbreaking because we can image these crash sites from orbit.

BRUMFIEL: She hopes the Indian mission will break humanity's losing streak. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
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