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India's lunar mission reaches a successful conclusion

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Turning now to international, if not interplanetary news - India's lunar lander has completed its initial mission on the surface of the moon. The country's space agency announced that the lander has gone to sleep nearly two weeks after touching down. Joining me to discuss how the mission has gone and what it could mean for us Earthlings is NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Hey there.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So Geoff, for starters, why has the lander gone to sleep, assuming that is intentional?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. It's pretty simple. This mission is solar powered, and the sun is setting on the moon. The time from sunrise to sunset on the lunar surface is 14 days. It landed at sunrise to maximize the work it could do. And now the day is done, so it's time to go to sleep.

SUMMERS: OK. So Geoff, what did India achieve with this landing?

BRUMFIEL: Well, this is the closest that any nation has ever gotten to the south pole of the moon. And that's important because researchers believe there's water ice and craters on the pole, and that would be huge. H2O can be used for drinking water, of course, but the oxygen can be used to breathe, and the hydrogen can fuel a lunar base potentially. Now, the lander wasn't quite far enough south to find this water ice, but it did make a bunch of measurements in this area no one's ever been to before. It deployed a little rover that kind of poked around, took some pictures. And right before they shut it down, it did a bunny hop just to see if it could. Honestly, though, the biggest effect of this mission might be back here on Earth. I spoke to Victoria Samson at the Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit that monitors space diplomacy. She said this soft landing has really put India on the map.

VICTORIA SAMSON: It was a big deal. I mean, if nothing else, they just became the fourth country that's been able to do it, following U.S., Russia, China. And frankly, Russia has not been able to do it for, you know, almost 50 years.

BRUMFIEL: In fact, a Russian lunar mission crashed just days before India touched down.

SUMMERS: That's right. Now, the U.S. is not on great terms with Russia or China here on Earth. Can it work with India on the moon?

BRUMFIEL: You know, this landing raises that possibility. Earlier this summer, India signed on to a U.S. set of principles around space exploration called the Artemis Accords. The accords set rules for things like how spacecraft talk to each other and sharing of scientific data. The fact that India signed on could be a signal that it's hoping to cooperate more closely with the U.S. on lunar exploration.

SAMSON: I think the fact that they did sign the Artemis Accords means that they are open to the idea of cooperating with the United States.

BRUMFIEL: And from America's sides, it has its own diplomatic reasons for encouraging cooperation. It's trying to bolster relations with India and other nations in the Asia Pacific region as part of an effort to counter China's influence. You know, space is one possibility where they could get their heads together.

SUMMERS: All right. And Geoff, this is starting to sound a lot like a geopolitical space race back to the moon. So tell us, is that where we're headed?

BRUMFIEL: I mean, it might be. Russia and China are collaborating on an international lunar research station near the South Pole, and NASA is trying to get back there through its lunar program, which is also called Artemis, just like the accords. But I think times are different. Let's not forget, we did win the space race back in 1969 by putting people on the moon. And a recent poll from the Pew Research Organization found relatively few Americans actually support a return to the moon. Just 12% said it should be NASA's top priority. They'd rather the space agency look out for killer asteroids and monitor climate change. You know, India's space agency has a relatively small budget. Russia has problems of its own with the war in Ukraine. China is facing a financial slowdown. I think if we're headed for another space race, it's going to be more of a sort of space, I don't know, stroll, space speed-walking competition.

SUMMERS: (Laughter) OK. That is NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Geoff, thank you.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. 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.