Indian space chiefs pressed to quickly set a new date to launch a landmark moon mission after aborting one liftoff Monday just 56 minutes ahead of schedule, media reports said.
A committee of experts was looking into the causes of the technical hitch that put back the bid to become just the fourth nation — after Russia, the United States and China — to land a spacecraft on the Moon.
The Chandrayaan-2 — or Moon Chariot 2 — rocket, a key part of India’s ambitious space programme, could still blast off on July 29 or 30, media reports said. If that is not possible the launch would have to wait until September or beyond.
“Right now, it is not possible to say when the launch can be scheduled. A committee is still investigating what went wrong,” an official from the Indian Space Research Organisation told the Hindustan Times on condition of anonymity.
ISRO blamed “a technical snag” for calling off the launch with 56 minutes and 24 seconds left on the countdown.
“As a measure of abundant precaution Chandrayaan-2 launch has been called off for today,” it added.
The agency gave no immediate indication when it would try again, but experts said ISRO would be cautious.
“If the launch does not happen in the next 48 hours, it could be postponed for a few months until we get an opportune launch window,” said Ravi Gupta, a scientist formerly with the state-run Defence Research and Development Organisation.
Gupta said the last-minute halt to the countdown was “a truly courageous decision” after all the effort put into the preparations.
– Low-cost missions –
News reports quoted an unnamed ISRO official as saying a problem occurred during the last stage of powering up the rocket, and fuel would have to be taken out — which could take 10 days — before a new launch date is announced.
India has spent about $140 million on Chandrayaan-2, designing and building almost all of its components domestically. It has hailed the mission as one of the cheapest in the crowded space race.
The launch would have been the third to the moon this year.
China put its Chang’e 4 mission on the lunar surface in January, while Israel’s $100 million Beresheet crash-landed when it sought to become the first privately-funded mission in April.
A soft landing on the Moon would be a huge leap forward in India’s space programme.
National pride is at stake as Prime Minister Narendra Modi has vowed to launch a crewed space mission by 2022.
It follows another high-profile but low-cost Indian mission — Mangalyaan — which put a spacecraft in orbit around Mars in 2014 at a fraction of the cost of comparable projects by established space powers like the United States, which often cost billions of dollars.
The Indian mission involved a 2.4-tonne orbiter that will circle the Moon for about a year taking images and testing the atmosphere. A lander named Vikram was to take the rover to the surface near the lunar South Pole.
The rover, that was to be put on the surface on September 6, was to spend 14 days sending back data on rocks and soil.
India’s first lunar mission in 2008 did not land on the Moon, but orbited the Moon searching for water using radar.
New Delhi also has ambitions to land a probe on Mars, following the success of the Mangalyaan orbiter.
Lunar exploration has been in focus in recent months with the looming 50th anniversary of the first human landing on the Moon, and US President Donald Trump giving NASA a 2024 deadline to return astronauts to the lunar surface.