Moon Water, Confirmed

moon-water

The biggest factor hanging over human settlement of other worlds is the question of water. We need it to drink, we need it to cultivate food, we need it for fuel (indeed, we need it for the first lunar microbrewery); pretty much every human activity requires water. Supplies of water could be ferried from Earth to the Moon, but that would be prohibitively expensive and ultimately futile. For us to live on the Moon or further afield, H2O needs to already be there.

Ever since the Apollo lunar landings when samples of rock were transported to Earth we’ve been searching for the mere hint of this life-giving molecule. There have been indications that the lunar regolith may indeed contain trace amounts of the stuff, but on the whole, scientific endeavour has yet to return evidence of any large supply of water that could sustain a colony.

Until today.

Up until now, scientists haven’t been able to seriously entertain the thought of water on or near the surface of the Moon, apart from in the depths of the darkest impact craters. However, data from the recently deceased Indian Chandrayaan-1 mission has supported data taken by the Cassini probe (when it flew past the Moon in 1999 on its way to Saturn) and NASA’s Deep Impact probe (which made several infrared observations of the lunar surface during Earth-Moon flybys on its way to the 2010 rendezvous with Comet 103P/Hartley 2). Both Cassini and Deep Impact found the signature of water and hydroxyl, and now, a NASA instrument on board Chandrayaan-1 reinforces these earlier findings.

The NASA-built Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) on board the Indian satellite detected wavelengths of light reflected off the surface that indicated hydrogen and oxygen molecules. This is convincing evidence that water is either at, or near, the lunar surface. As with the previous measurements, the water signal gets stronger nearer the lunar poles.

So what does this mean for the future of manned space exploration? Although water has been detected, this doesn’t mean there are huge icy lakes for us to pitch a Moon base and pump out the water. In actuality, the signal indicates water, but there is less water than what is found in the sand of the Earth’s deserts (you can pack away the drinking straws now).

It’s still pretty damn dry, drier than anything we have here. But we’ve found this dynamic, ongoing process and the moon was supposedly dead,” University of Maryland senior research scientist Jessica Sunshine told Discovery News. “This is a real paradigm shift.”

If there are widespread water deposits (despite the low concentrations), even in regions constantly bathed in sunlight, there is huge potential for water deposits in those mysterious, frozen craters. Interestingly, these measurements indicate that the water may not have just been deposited there by comets; the interaction between the solar wind and the existing lunar mineralogy could be a mechanism by which lunar ice is constantly being formed.

Every place on the moon, at some point during the lunar day, though not necessarily at all times, has water and OH [hydroxyl],” Sunshine said.

We may see self-sufficient lunar colonies yet. But the saying “getting blood out of a stone” should probably be replaced with “getting water out of the lunar regolith”

Next up is NASA’s LCROSS mission that is scheduled to impact a crater in the south pole on October 9th. Analysis from the impact plume will supplement this positive Chandrayaan-1 result, hopefully revealing yet more water in this frozen region.

Sources: Discovery News, Space.com, Times.co.uk

Chandrayaan-1 Didn’t Fail. It Fried

chandrayaan

As we all know by now, India’s first mission to the Moon (Chandrayaan-1) lost contact with mission control over a week ago. Very quickly, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) declared that the mission was unrecoverable, and after a 10-month stint, it was curtains for India’s dΓ©but lunar jaunt.

Oh well, these things happen in space.

But not everyone sees it that way. Almost immediately, the media started calling Chandrayaan-1 a “failure.” The ISRO issued press releases saying that 95% of the mission objectives had been completed, so it couldn’t be considered a “failure.”

During the Al Jazeera Inside Story show I was invited to appear on shortly after contact was lost with the satellite, I mentioned that it isn’t easy to put stuff into space. Although the ISRO has been operational for the best part of 40 years, getting a probe to the moon, dropping an impactor onto the surface and surviving for 10 months wasn’t an easy thing to do by any means. How could the mission possibly be a failure? More of a partial success.

Some questions will obviously hover over the reasons for the mishap, but it doesn’t seem to be holding India back as they prepare Chandrayaan-2.

So what did happen? It would appear that some more details are surfacing about the satellite’s demise. The Indian press are pointing to a decision by the ISRO to increase the orbit of Chandrayaan-1 from 100km to 200km in May this year for scientific reasons. In actuality, the radiation shielding installed on the craft was insufficient, forcing mission control to increase the orbit away from the Moon.

And now it looks like the same problem — lack of decent radiation shielding — fried the communication computers on board the satellite, probably the root cause of the blackout. In any case, international specialists will meet in Bangalore today to shed some light on why Chandrayaan-1 disappeared and to evaluate its performance.

Chandrayaan-1 is Lost, Astroengine Appears on Al Jazeera

As far as blogging about space news goes, this is most definitely the pinnacle of my writing career. After hearing the frustrating news that the Indian Space and Research Organization (ISRO) had lost touch with their Chandrayaan-1 lunar mission, I, of course, felt compelled to blog about it.

Not 24 hours later, I receive an email from the producer of an Al Jazeera news show called Inside Story asking me if I’d be interested in sharing my views about Chandrayaan-1 on the show early Monday morning. Hell yes!

So I spent the rest of Sunday cramming the (very interesting) history of the Indian space program, along with some of the specifics of Chandrayaan-1. By Monday, I was ready to go.

The filming for the show started at 7:05am in a studio in Culver City and lasted about 25 minutes. And it was a lot of fun! Check out the video above, I think the Inside Story production is highly professional, with a very BBC feel to it. I’m very happy to have been asked for my opinion live on air, on the international stage.

Although my brain wasn’t functioning particularly fast at such an early hour, I think it went well, and I eventually got my points across…

Lost In Space: India’s Chandrayaan-1 Moon Mission Goes Silent

A miniature replica of the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft (V. Ganesan/The Hindu)

Just as one mission begins (Discovery’s STS-128), another ends. Unfortunately, only 10 months after launch, the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) lunar satellite Chandrayaan-1 has mysteriously ceased communication with mission control. ISRO officials have declared that the mission has ended, 14 months earlier than planned.

On Saturday, at 1:30am local time, the ISRO lost communications, and according to a spokesman, the agency is no longer in control of the spacecraft. Chandrayaan-1 data was being received by a monitoring unit in the southern city of Bangalore. There is currently no explanation for the failure.

The mission had completed 3,400 orbits of the Moon and everything seemed to be operational for the next few thousand orbits. The ambitious mission was launched by the fledgling space agency to allow India to stake a claim over lunar exploration with the future hope of exploiting the Moon’s natural resources (such as the abundance of uranium). This mission put India into a very exclusive club of only five international space agencies that had sent missions to the Moon before (NASA, JAXA, ESA, ROSCOSMOS and the CNSA).

This isn’t the first problem the satellite had suffered, however. In May, the probe lost a critical instrument called a star sensor, and then in July, the craft overheated. Fortunately, further damage to the rest of the satellite was averted by ground controllers.

Despite the obviously upsetting news about the loss of the $80 million piece of ISRO hardware, officials are surprisingly upbeat about the whole thing.

The mission is definitely over. We have lost contact with the spacecraft,” Project Director M. Annadurai said. “It [Chandrayaan-1] has done its job technically… 100 per cent. Scientifically also, it has done almost 90-95 percent of its job.”

Personally, I think the ISRO did a superb job at developing Chandrayaan-1 mission, and simply getting the thing into lunar orbit is an incredible feat. Another aspect I was impressed with was the ground controllers’ ability to deal with problems in-flight and fix them accordingly. This can only help to strengthen India’s ability when launching future missions to the Moon.

Sources: The Hindu, New York Times