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Humans have been hurling spacecraft at the Moon for over 60 years. But even with all that practice, it's still quite the challenge to successfully land something on the surface. Case in point: in August 2023, two missions attempted to land near the lunar south pole, and only one succeeded.

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Image Sources:Луна-24_3_(24432633921)_cropped.jpg,_Chandrayaan-2_Lifting_off_01.jpg,_Chandrayaan-3_-_Launch_vehicle_lifting_off_from_the_Second_Launch_Pad_(SLP)_of_SDSC-SHAR,_Sriharikota_02.webp,_Chandrayaan-2_-_Pragyan_rover_mounted_on_the_ramp_of_Vikram_lander.jpg
Humans have been hurling spacecraft  at the Moon for more than 60 years.

But despite all that practice, it’s still hard  to actually land something on the surface. As we’re filming this episode,  four different missions have attempted landings this year.

And only one of them succeeded. But that single success was pretty significant, and it came at the end of a mini space race. Two international missions  were vying to be the first to land at the Moon’s yet-unexplored south pole.

Some people might describe the  competition as Russia vs. India. But in the end, it was really us versus the Moon. [♪ INTRO] The runners in this particular race were  the Indian Space Research Organization, or ISRO, and Roscosmos, both the official space agencies of their respective nations.

And they hadn’t set their  sights on the lunar south pole just because no one had been there before. I mean sure, getting to shout  “First!” is a little satisfying. But the Moon’s south pole is  a prized scientific spot, too, largely because we’ve detected water ice there.

Not only is water useful  for keeping a human alive, but you can break it down  to make rocket fuel, too. So one day, we might use the lunar south pole as a way station for even  further-flung space missions. But let’s set that juicy scientific value aside and focus on what really matters:  International pats on the back.   During the times of the USSR, they  landed on the Moon a bunch of times, even if they never got any  human cosmonauts up there.

Their last visit was in 1976,  when the Luna 24 robot landed, scooped up a little bit of lunar soil,  and launched the sample back home. Five decades later, Russia hoped to  make a triumphant return with Luna 25. The stakes for India, on the other  hand, were a little different.

They’re a relatively new  player on the lunar scene. While they’ve successfully put  spacecraft into orbit around the Moon, their first lander crashed  during its descent back in 2019. With their Chandrayaan-3 mission,  India was out for redemption, but was also looking to become the fourth nation to achieve a soft landing on the  Moon…after the USSR, USA, and China.

India launched their probe first, on July 14. But instead of shooting for the Moon  using the method we typically use… a big rocket with a straight, powerful  push over the shortest distance possible… Chandrayaan-3 used a series of incremental orbits to slowly get from going around  the Earth to going around the Moon. Then, there was even more orbits to actually land, and the trip finished with  a short powered descent.

The whole thing was powered by  ISRO’s Launch Vehicle Mark 3. This rocket was initially designed to  put satellites into Geosynchronous orbit, but got upgraded to be more of an  all-purpose launch vehicle that could support heavier payloads and go anywhere from low Earth orbit to beyond the Earth-Moon system. The LVM3 hasn’t launched too many times just yet, but so far, it has a 100% launch success rate.

Eventually, ISRO wants to use  it to launch people into space, but that’s still a ways away. It sure did a good job at getting  Chandrayaan-3 moving, though. Once the lander got up into  space, it went through a series of orbit-raising maneuvers over several  days to eventually hit lunar orbit.

Then, over several more days, Chandrayaan-3 began lowering its orbit toward the lunar surface. Not to be outdone, Roscosmos  launched Luna 25 on August 10. Since it took the much more  traditional Moon-shot trajectory, it arrived in lunar orbit just six days later.

Chandrayaan-3 was still in  its shrinking orbits phase, so Russia was poised to land first. But on August 19, a glitch caused  Luna 25’s thrusters to fire for 43 seconds too long, and unfortunately,  this spelled the end of the mission. Roscosmos eventually confirmed that  the craft had “ceased to exist…” a.k.a. crashed into the Moon.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter even spotted what appears to be the  tiny impact crater it left behind. So, the Russians were out of the race. But Chandrayaan-3 was just about to  kick on the power for its slow descent.

On August 23, the lander Vikram  and hitchhiking rover Pragyan detached from the communications relay satellite, and slowly lowered until they  successfully touched down on the Moon! It wasn’t exactly on the south pole. It was about 600 kilometers away, at a  southern latitude of about 69 degrees.

But Chandrayaan-3 was down. Slow and steady had won the race. The Chandrayaan-3 cemented ISRO’s position in the space exploration history books.

The first agency to successfully  land near the lunar south pole, and fourth to land anywhere on the Moon. It’s a heck of an achievement. But ISRO didn’t rest on their laurels.

The following day, the lander and  rover descended onto the lunar surface, and the dynamic robot duo started  doing a little bit of science. They weren’t carrying as  many instruments as Luna 25. But together they could take  temperature measurements and study the local seismic activity.

Unfortunately their fact-finding  mission was short-lived. After bunkering down for a two  week long, freezing lunar night, both the lander and rover failed to wake back up. This mini space race of  2023 really underlined that it’s still not easy to get to the Moon.

You need to have the right mission,  the right plan, and the right rocket. And even after all that, you need  to hope luck is on your side. But hey, when has the difficulty of space travel ever stopped people from trying before?

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow. Each month this year, we’re  celebrating a different rocket by immortalizing it as a  spiffy-looking, limited-edition pin. And for its role in getting  Chandrayaan-3 to the bottom of the Moon, our pinultimate rocket pin is dedicated  to ISRO’s Launch Vehicle Mark 3.

Head over to to order one today. [♪ OUTRO]