Opinion / Analysis

Water on the Moon

Ajey Lele

Chandrayan-1 has created history. It has proved instrumental towards finding water on the surface of the moon. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has proved its competence once again but this time they should also thank their stars and this is not because there is something amiss with their capabilities but because of the lack of maturity shown by some segments of society earlier when Chandrayan-1 had permanently lost its contact with the earth. Just few days back when ISRO had to wind up its first moon mission well ahead of the schedule, it had received lot of flak from various quarters. Doubts were raised about ISRO’s claims that most of the technical objectives of the Chandrayan-1 mission were already been achieved. In this era of ‘breaking news’ where heroes and villains are made overnight nobody had time to actually assimilate what ISRO was explaining. The jury was prematurely out deliberating the fate of the mission and Chandrayan-1 was declared a failure! Today, the same mission is receiving kudos just because it has now succeeded in finding water on the moon. That’s for sure that the mission was in best of its health for most of the time till it was alive, very high quality data was being continuously received, the performance of Indian and foreign sensors onboard was up to the mark, the spacecraft was being correctly maneuvered as per the requirement for remote sensing the moon from various angles and the scientific community was burning midnight ampere to analyze the huge amount of data (in terabytes) being made available by Chandrayan-1. However, all these efforts and achievements would have gone waste if there would have been no water on the moon itself. Now, ISRO had no role to play with regard to the absence or presence of water on the moon! They always had the scientific capability to judge it either way but probably many had no interest in knowing that. The irony is that today Chandrayan-1 mission is being judged as a success just because there is water on the moon and for this, ISRO should thank its stars! Many theories are being developed about the future because of the evidence of water being found on the moon. However, it could be premature to jump to any conclusion at this point of time when the discovery is in a nascent stage. In fact what has been found on the moon is also not the exact the water molecule in its known form i.e. H2O. What scientists have inferred, based on the remote sensing data made available by the NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) sensor on board of Chandrayan-1, that hydroxyl (HO) could be available on the moon’s surface. It is inferred that oxygen and hydrogen atom could be used separately for different purposes and also together as water. Particularly, hydrogen could be of a great use as a form of fuel for rockets. All these are mostly theoretical possibilities. NASA plans to drop two probes on the moon’s surface during second week of October 2009. This could give rise to some dust cloud and NASA craft would undertake studies of this dust cloud from point of view of knowing more about the water on the Moon surface. This NASA’s experiment known as Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission is expected to come to a remarkable conclusion on October 9 (2009) with the impact of the LCROSS Centaur upper stage rocket and four minutes later, the impact of the LCROSS Shepherding Spacecraft into Cabeus crater near the moon’s South Pole. It is expected that these impacts could be able to make a puncture on the surface of the moon almost half the size of the Olympic level swimming pool. This is expected to give rise to a huge plum almost reaching 20 miles above moon’s surface. NASA proposes to undertake an analysis of this plum to know more about the water. ISRO has also claimed that they have some initial indications about the likelihood of water on moon’s surface much before recent revelations. Late last year (on November 14, 2008) a Moon Impact Probe (MIP) was dropped by Chandrayan-1 with Indian tricolor painted on it. The point of MIPs impact was near the Moon’s South Pole. During the travel from the Chandrayan-1 which was 100km above moon’s surface to the moon’s surface MIP has picked up few observations which are also supporting the theory of water on the moon. The task ahead of scientists now is both complicated and challenging. However, it is interesting too. India’s second moon mission Chandrayan-2 is expected to be modified to cater for more research on water on the moon. The proposed date for this mission earlier was 2013 but now it seems that it could be rescheduled to an early date. During this mission India, in collaboration with Russia, would be dropping a robot on the moon’s surface to undertake mineral testing. The data collected by Chandrayan-1 is in huge quantities and it is expected that more knowledge about the minerals on the moon could be deciphered from this.

Author Note
The author is a New Delhi based strategic analyst