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Over the moon

It’s official – India’s maiden moon mission,Chandrayaan has found clinching evidence of water still being formed on the lunar surface. Professor Yash Pal tells us why this finding is such a significant turning point in space research....

What is the big takeaway from Chandrayaan’s discovery of water on the moon?

These findings are a remarkable first,finally confirming what we had long wondered about. For decades,we thought that the moon was bone dry,that it couldn’t possibly have any water. There isn’t that much water,it’s not like there’s a swimming pool – but what’s really interesting is the way the water is produced. Solar winds blowing on to the moon’s surface contain protons and some other particles,which interact with chemicals and minerals in the top layer of the moon’s soil. This  produces OH and then water molecules. The water produced dries up on the hotter parts of the moon,but there are wetter patches near the polar areas. We can surmise what this might lead to,whether it could seep into large permanentaly dark caverns near the moon’s poles. What was phenomenal about this effort was the way it pooled the imagination,intellectual resources and working styles of different groups of scientists across the world. In terms of cooperation,selection of instruments,in terms of the enormous data collected,it was a fantastic success.

What does this mean for India’s space programme?

It’s demonstrated the technological capability to launch a satellite,which was able to reach the moon on its first attempt. No other country has attempted such a feat as a first attempt. It was able to go around the moon in a polar orbit at an altitude of a 100 kilometres as planned and collect images. India has coordinated with NASA,and the European Space Agency,and it was an extremely creditable act of coordination. There were many excellent Indian scientists and engineers – and this was home-grown talent,not people educated abroad. Also,we shouldn’t always measure excellence in terms of size and number of satellites launched,but in how productive they have been.

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What are some of the wilder possibilities of this finding,for instance,the talk about a possible colony on the moon?

It has revealed the way water can be produced by the interaction of the solar wind with lunar surface material. I suppose this can be extended to questions about other places where this combination is found,other moons or satellites of  the sun – for example Mars which does have a thin atmosphere. All the speculation about colonising the moon and all that are a long while away,right now we should just concentrate on understanding it.

As told to Amulya Gopalakrishnan

First published on: 25-09-2009 at 00:51 IST
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