The first hint that there might be water on the moon came from a NASA instrument called the Moon Mineralogy Mapper on board the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft. (This craft was launched by India last October to orbit the moon, and stopped operating last August.) The discovery was so surprising that researchers at first thought there was some kind of calibration problem in the instruments on board.
Researchers were however then able to confirm their observations using data from two additional spacecraft: NASA’s Cassini probe that passed by the moon in 1999 while travelling to Saturn, and the Deep Impact spacecraft, which whizzed by the moon in June of this year on its way to visit a comet.
Said Madhavan Nair, the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO): “We have found the signature of water on the surface of the moon but that is not in the form of a sea or in a lake or even a puddle. It’s not even a drop. You cannot pick it up just like that. It is embedded on the surface in the minerals and rocks and we have clear indication that hydroxyl (OH) as well as the water H2O molecules are there present on the surface, maybe at least for a few millimetres. And this has got a wide spread and also the quantity what we have found out is much larger than what was expected.”
The consequences of this discovery could be legion. The water, if processed in mass quantities, might provide resources — drinking water and rocket fuel — for future moon-dwellers, say scientists. So in theory, it might be possible to establish a manned Moon base within two decades. It is also true however, that extracting water from the moon will be a long and difficult process.
Said Madhavan Nair of the ISRO: “Some of you may ask if can we extract water out of this. Yes, perhaps we can evolve techniques, but if you process one tonne of soil, we may perhaps get half a litre of water. So that’s going to be a real challenge. But at the same time for the first time in the history of space research water is confirmed on the moon.”
Scientists first claimed that water existed on moon 40 years ago after they analysed rock samples brought back to Earth as souvenirs by Apollo astronauts. But the results were so extraordinary that the scientists doubted the findings – and believed that the traces of water must be due to the boxes containing the moon rocks having been contaminated by air from the earth’s atmosphere.
Still, the most powerful evidence of water on the moon is likely to come from the American Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite that will crash into the moon’s South Pole in October and possibly sense the presence of water in the resulting debris. The story of the water on moon, and its possible exploitation, is in the early stages.
For more information about the ISRO:
For information about Nasa’s search for water on the moon:
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