Friday, September 25, 2009

Water on the Moon

The scientific community is all a-buzz today, using phrases like "definitive," "clear evidence" and "unequivocally confirm." Of what do they speak? Why of the presence of water on the Moon, a world previously thought, for the most part, to be as dry as a bone.

The new evidence comes from three corroborating sources. The first is the Moon Mineralogy Mapper, an instrument developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and flown on Chandrayaan-1, India’s first robotic lunar probe. The second source is the Deep Impact spacecraft, which made its discoveries on two fly-by’s of the Moon during it's current extended mission (EPOXI). The third source is NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.

The new data shows that over the course of the long lunar day, a water only a few molecules thick—described by some as “dew”—gradually forms on the lunar surface and then gradually dissipates. Scientists are not certain how this happens, but they think the cycle is driven by the sun. They suggest that hydrogen ions are carried by the solar wind to the Moon where they interact with oxygen rich minerals in lunar soil and rock to produce the molecules for water and hydroxyl. The molecules form in the cooler lunar morning and then evaporate in the warmer lunar mid-day. Scientific reports estimate that one ton of lunar surface containing the molecules could naturally yield as much as 32 ounces, or one quart, of water. While this amount is not large, scientists note that there are ways to increase the output. What’s more, scientists suspect that if their theories regarding the process are correct, then this is happening throughout the inner solar system on all airless bodies with oxygen-bearing minerals.

This is very exciting news, but, for now, there are a few hurdles that sill need to be cleared. The discovery must be confirmed to everyone's satisfaction. The resource finds must be in sufficient quantities to be usable. And the resources must be cost effectively accessible. If all of these issues can be addressed, this is major. Just think about it. Once the necessary extracting, processing and storing facilities were up and running, future explorers would no longer have to "bring their own everything" when they left the safety and comfort of Earth. Instead, they could pack the minimum essentials for a short hop and let the Moon provide the rest. This would include water for drinking and farming, oxygen for breathing, and the combination of hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel. This turn of events could give a tremendous boost to the arguments for using the Moon for colonization and as a platform for future solar system missions. In addition to the possible benefits to space exploration, there are those that are considering, with the presence of water, the possibility of life on the Moon. Whatever the final outcome, this discovery should definitely boost budgets for lunar exploration in the short term.

Chandrayaan-1 was India's first robotic lunar probe, managed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). The word “Chandrayaan” is Sanskrit, meaning “Moon-vehicle” or "Lunar Craft.” Chandrayaan-1 was launched from Satish Dhawan Space Centre Sriharikota on October 22, 2008. Designed for a two-year mission, it ended after only 312 days when radio contact was lost on August 29. Even with this loss, mission managers were able to achieve 95 percent of the planned objectives. The spacecraft carried eleven scientific instruments. Five were Indian, three were from the European Space Agency (ESA), one from the Bulgarian Aerospace Agency, and two were from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). One of these was the Moon Mineralogy Mapper .

NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft was originally built for is 2005 mission in which it successfully punched a hole in comet Tempel 1 in order to find out what was inside. The spacecraft's data on lunar water were obtained as part of calibration opportunities that occurred during two June flybys of the Earth and Moon, which were needed to get a sufficient gravity boosts to travel on its EPOXI mission to a second comet, Hartley 2, which the spacecraft will encounter in November 2010.

NASA’s Cassini-Huygens mission was launched October 15, 1997 and is currently orbiting Saturn, studying the planet, its ring system and its moons.

For the latest on the discovery, please check out these sites:

Chandrayaan-1 Mission Home page: http://www.isro.gov.in/Chandrayaan/htmls/home.htm

NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper home page: http://m3.jpl.nasa.gov/

NASA’s Cassini Mission home page: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/cassini/main/index.html

NASA’s Deep Impact Mission home page: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/deepimpact/main/index.html

NASA’s EPOXI Mission home page: http://epoxi.umd.edu/

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