India’s mooncraft ‘discovers’ water on moon: US scientist

Bangalore/Chennai, Sep 24 (IANS) India’s maiden moon mission Chandrayaan-1 found evidence of water on the surface of the moon, a top American scientist confirmed Thursday.

“The moon has distinct signatures of water. The evidence of water molecules on the surface of the moon was found by the moon mineralogy mapper (M3) of the US-based National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on board Chandrayaan-1,” M3 principal investigator Carle Pieters said in a paper published in the journal Science.

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M3 was one of the 11 scientific instruments on board the lunar spacecraft that was launched Oct 22, 2008 by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). The mission had to be aborted Aug 30 after Chandrayaan-1 lost radio contact with the Earth.

ISRO Chairman G. Madhavan Nair had told the media Wednesday that he could not yet confirm the presence of water on the moon, but “before the end of this week, we will let you know”.

However, confirming the finding and terming it a major discovery, Pieters said the discovery of water on the lunar surface would reinvigorate studies of the moon and potentially change thinking on how it originated.

“Hydroxyl, a molecule consisting of one oxygen atom and one hydrogen atom, were discovered across the entire surface of the Earth’s nearest celestial neighbour,” Pieters, a planetery geologist at Brown University in Rhode Island, claimed.

Though the abundance of the hydroxyl molecules are not precisely known, about 1,000 parts per million could be in the lunar soil, the paper noted.

“Harvesting one ton of the top layer of the moon’s surface will yield as much as 32 ounces (907 grams) of water,” scientists involved in the discovery said.

As lead author of the M3 findings, Pieters said more evidence of water was found in the moon’s high latitudes.

“It greatly expands current thinking about where water in any form was presumed to be located,” she pointed out.

The findings give rise to interesting new questions about where the water molecules come from and where they may be going.

Scientists have speculated that water molecules may migrate from non-polar regions of the moon to the poles, where they are stored as ice in ultra-frigid pockets of craters that never receive sunlight.

“If the water molecules are as mobile as we think they are — even a fraction of them — they provide a mechanism for getting water to those permanently shadowed craters. This opens a whole new avenue (of lunar research), but we have to understand the physics of it to utilise it,” Pieters noted.

The NASA payload found water molecules and hydroxyl at diverse areas of the sunlit region of the moon’s surface, but the water signature appeared stronger at the moon’s higher latitudes.

Two NASA spacecrafts — the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) on the Cassini spacecraft and the High-Resolution Infrared Imaging Spectrometer on the EPOXI spacecraft also confirmed the data on the discovery of water by M3.

“We’ve made a very important step with this discovery, and now there are some very important steps to follow up on,” Pieters held.

Crediting the Indian Space Research Agency (ISRO) for its role in the findings, Pieters said “if it were not for them (ISRO), we would not have been able to make this discovery.”