India’s low-cost spacecraft may have crashed on the Moon. Scientists overseeing the project in the southern city of Bangalore lost contact with the unmanned spacecraft just before it was due to land on Saturday.

Indian officials tried to put a positive spin on the venture, but it is not known if the landing craft survived its final descent to a southern part of the planet.

India had hoped to become just the fourth country after the United States, Russia and China to successfully land on the Moon. But it appears that the drama is a setback to the country’s ambitious lunar program.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was at Mission Control in Bangalore (also known as Bengaluru) looking on when the mood deteriorated as it became clear that everything had not gone according to plan.

After several tense minutes as the expected landing time came and went, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chairman Kailasavadivoo Sivan announced that communication with the lander had been lost.

“The ‘Vikram’ lander descent was [going] as planned and normal performance was observed,” until the craft had descended to 2.1 kilometers [1.3 miles] above the South Pole region, Sivan said.

“Subsequently the communication from the lander to the ground station was lost. The data is being analyzed,” he said, surrounded by grim-faced engineers and technicians in the control room.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, speaks with ISRO chief Kailasavadivoo Sivan at the Mission Control in Bangalore. Photo: Press Information Bureau/ handout / AFP

Don’t be disheartened: Modi

Modi told them after Sivan’s announcement that “what you have done [already] is not a small achievement”. In a motivational speech, the prime minister told the ISRO scientists not to be disheartened by the Moon mission and asserted that there will be a “new dawn”.

“Friends, I could feel what you were going through a few hours back, your eyes were conveying a lot. You live for India’s honor, I salute you.”

Sivan, the ISRO chairman, broke down soon after the speech and the prime minister was seen as hugging and consoling him shortly after, the Times of India reported.

Chandrayaan-2 – or Moon Chariot 2 – took off on July 22 carrying an orbiter, lander and rover almost entirely designed and made in India, a week after an initial launch was halted just before blast-off.

ISRO had acknowledged before the soft landing that it was a complex maneuver, which Sivan called “15 minutes of terror”.

The Vikram lander was carrying a lunar rover. Photo: ISRO

The lander – named after Vikram A Sarabhai, the father of India’s space program – aimed to be the first to reach the lunar South Pole region.

It was carrying rover Pragyan, ‘wisdom’ in the Sanskrit language, which was due to emerge several hours after touchdown.

The rover was expected to explore craters for clues on the origin and evolution of the Moon, and also for evidence on how much water the polar region contains.

The 2.4-tonne (5,300-pound) orbiter remains in operation and will circle the Moon for about a year, taking images of the surface, looking for signs of water, and studying the atmosphere.

According to Mathieu Weiss, a representative in India for France’s space agency CNES, analyzing the South Pole is vital to determining whether humans can one day spend extended periods on the Moon.

Scientists believe that large amounts of water are in the area, making human settlement there more viable.

If people can survive on the Moon, that means it could be used as a pitstop on the way to Mars, the next objective of governments and private interests such as Elon Musk’s Space X.

Ambitious program

Asia’s third-largest economy also hopes to secure lucrative commercial satellite and orbiting deals in the competitive market.

The Chandrayaan-2 space mission – India’s most ambitious so far – stood out because of its low cost of about $140 million. The United States spent the equivalent of more than $100 billion on its Apollo missions.

India is preparing Gaganyaan, its first manned space mission, with the air force announcing on Friday that the first level of selection of potential astronauts was complete.

The South Asian nation also hopes to land a probe on Mars. In 2014, it became only the fourth nation to put a satellite into orbit around the Red Planet.

In January, China became the first nation to land a rover on the far side of the Moon. And in April, Israel’s attempt failed at the last minute when its craft suffered an engine failure and apparently crashed onto the lunar surface.

During a live videocast of that mission, control staff could be heard saying that engines meant to slow the craft’s descent and allow a soft landing had failed and contact with it had been lost.

With reporting by AFP