India’s Vikram lunar lander, a part of their broader Chandrayaan-2 moon mission, launched in July and was slated to touchdown on the moon’s surface on September 7 — effectively making India only the fourth nation in history to successfully land anything on the moon. Vikram successfully traversed the vast 238,900 miles to reach lunar orbit, but with just two miles left to go in its descent, the lander began to veer off course. Soon after, India lost contact with its lander entirely.
Within a day, India said that they had located the crash site on the Moon’s surface, likely thanks to the other half of the mission, Vikram’s accompanying orbiter. That spot was not confirmed, however, until NASA recently spotted the wreckage with a Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
NASA has become pretty good at this sort of thing thanks to some practice they got earlier this year with another nation’s failed attempt at reaching the moon: Israel’s Beresheet lander. But it wasn’t actually NASA that first spotted the Indian wreckage. Instead, it was Shanmuga Subramanian, an Indian computer programmer and mechanical engineer with a passion for space science.
This gif shows the before and after shots of the crash site, notice the subtle difference? Subramanian did.
“The crash landing of Vikram rekindled an interest in the moon not only for me and others also,” he told the press. “I think even if Vikram had landed and sent some images, we would have never had such interest. For the first few days I was scanning the images randomly and there were lot of false positives.”
Subramanian scoured images taken by NASA’s orbiter and noticed a white speck near Vikram’s intended landing spot that wasn’t visible in previous images. That led him to wonder if perhaps the lander crashed and was largely enveloped by the Moon’s loose surface material. He took what he found and posted it to Twitter while also e-mailing NASA directly.
— Shan (@Ramanean) October 3, 2019
Shortly thereafter, NASA not only confirmed Subramanian’s findings, they formally credited him with the discovery.
Thank you for your email informing us of your discovery of debris from the Vikram lander,” NASA Deputy Project Scientist John Keller wrote in an e-mail to Subramanian.
“Using the information the LROC team did additional searches in this area and located the site of the primary impact as well as other debris around the impact location and announced the sighting on the NASA and ASU pages where you have been given credit for your observation.”
After this and the Israeli failure earlier in the year, the United States, China, and Russia remain the only nations that have managed a “soft landing” on the Moon’s surface, with the U.S. standing as the only nation to have ever sent human beings there.
Currently, there are a number of efforts aimed at returning man to the surface on the moon. America’s most promising effort is likely the Artemis program that is slated to reach the moon by 2024.