NEW DELHI – India's first attempt to land on the moon went awry early Saturday when the space agency lost contact with the lander as it neared the lunar site minutes before touchdown was expected.
Launched in July, Chandrayaan-2 had successfully completed Earth and moon orbits and was set to execute a controlled landing on the lunar south pole, a previously unexplored region.
In the tense moments leading to the descent, a live broadcast from the space agency's control room showed rows of scientists with headphones sitting in front of computers. About 10 minutes after the lander began its descent, the commentary went quiet as officials talked among themselves with concern. K. Sivan, head of the space agency, announced that communication with the lander had been lost.
After leaving the control center, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, "These are moments to be courageous, and courageous we will be!"
Of the 38 soft-landing attempts made on the moon, only about half have succeeded. In April, Israel attempted to land a spacecraft on the lunar surface, only to fail in the final moments. India had hoped its Chandrayaan-2 mission would make it the fourth nation to land on the moon after the United States, Russia and China.
Experts had warned that the landing of Vikram, named after the country's first space agency chief, would be challenging.
"Proper soft landing is the most crucial part of the exercise," said Patrick Das Gupta, a professor at Delhi University. "From an altitude of 21 miles to zero height is the most scary time."
Sivan had called the landing maneuver "15 minutes of terror" in a television news interview.
The mission has been a source of immense national pride.
"Be courageous," Modi told the scientists in the control room. "This is not a small achievement. The country is proud of you."