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India’s Chandrayaan-3 Moon mission spacecraft returns to Earth

India’s Chandrayaan-3 Moon mission spacecraft returns to Earth

India’s groundbreaking Chandrayaan-3 Moon mission spacecraft has returned to orbit around the Earth, demonstrating technologies that may help the country return samples from the lunar surface.

The propulsion module of the mission, which helped deliver the country’s indigenous lander and rover to the lunar surface, was moved from orbit around the Moon to one around the Earth, the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) said in a statement.

The mission’s solar-powered propulsion module – a box-shaped component of the Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft – has moved out of lunar orbit and is now set to circle the Earth every two weeks.

It is now circling the Earth in a high orbit where there are “no threats of close approach with any operational Earth-orbiting satellites”, the Indian space agency noted.

The module reached its closest point to Earth on 22 November, coming within 154,000km (95,000 miles) of the planet’s surface, Isro said.

The propulsion module, part of the mission spacecraft, was launched on 14 July and put the Chandrayaan-3 lander and rover in an orbit around the moon ahead of their historic landing in August.

It then continued to study the Earth by taking a slightly higher orbit around the Moon, attempting to assist with the search for planets like ours.

Isro’s initial plan was to study the Earth using the module’s “Shape” payload for about three months with the fuel it had in stock.

But optimal maneuvers since launch ensured it had about 100 kg of fuel left after over a month of operations in lunar orbit.

The Indian space agency then decided to use the available fuel in the propulsion module to demonstrate strategies for a sample return mission.

Isro then decided to re-orbit the module to a suitable Earth orbit and to continue observing the planet with its scientific instruments.

“As per plan, SHAPE payload is being operated whenever Earth is in its field of view,” the space agency said.

Isro has already accomplished the primary objectives of the Chandrayaan-3 mission, including the breakthrough demonstration of soft landing near the lunar south pole on 23 August.

Just hours after landing, the mission also accomplished another milestone once Isro’s Pragyaan rover exited the Vikram lander module to explore the lunar surface.

About a week later, the rover detected the “unambiguous” presence of sulphur and other elements near the south pole before the lunar vehicle went dark in October.

One of the instruments part of the mission also made the first-ever measurements of the fourth state of matter, plasma, over the south pole surface, which Isro said could lead to “enhanced” communication system designs for “upcoming lunar visitors.”

With the latest trial, Isro could plan and execute maneuvers to return a probe from the Moon to Earth.

The agency has also demonstrated the development and validation of software to plan such a maneuver.