Bangalore: India’s first mission to the moon may have returned enough data to corroborate a four-decade-old theory on lunar highlands and to validate several other yet unproven theories about its origins. The mission now continues on a key hunt: for evidence of water on the moon.
Seven months after India launched Chandrayaan–1, scientists of the Indian Space Research Organisation, or Isro, say the spacecraft has sent back data indicating that the lunar highlands are the result of the magma ocean, created by volcanic bursts during the moon’s origins.
Magma is the liquid or molten rock that’s spewed from deep within a planet or satellite’s surface during volcanic eruptions. The molten rock solidifies over billions of years over the surface, cooled by outside environment.
Initial data from the mission show, for the first time, floors of dark polar craters, mineral content and corroborates the highlands theory. Isro scientists, however, say they have to fully analyse the data to establish the presence of water on the moon, vital for any potential human settlement. “We have analysed only a third of the data we have got so far,” said J.N. Goswami, principal investigator of the mission and director of the Physics Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad. Goswami and other investigators presented 10 papers at a lunar conference in Houston in March, revealing the magma ocean.
The lunar probe, with 11 instruments, including six from the US and Europe, has hovered about 100km over the moon’s surface since its launch in October. It beamed back to earth thousands of three-dimensional images that will help scientists map the chemical composition of the moon’s atmosphere and surface for minerals and water.
The National Aeronautics and Space Agency’s (Nasa) moon mineralogy mapper, or M3, on the Indian spacecraft picked data to indicate that the moon’s highlands were of the magma ocean, the scientists said in presentations at the conference.
Evidence of the magma ocean was also picked by Japan’s Selene Kaguya spacecraft, for the first time after 40 years of bringing moon rock samples from Nasa’s Apollo mission to earth. Brown University’s Carle Pieters, principal investigator of M3, declined to comment to a email questionnaire sent by Mint.
The terrain mapping cameras snapped images deep inside dark polar craters that are permanently shadowed from the sun, and identified iron-bearing minerals in the surface, according to Isro scientists.
“The instruments on board and repeated circling of the moon has enabled us to see areas of the moon not seen in ages,” said M. Annadurai, project director for the lunar mission.
India’s second lunar mission in 2013-14 will have a rover that would land on the moon’s south pole, a region believed to hold water deposits, if the first mission discovers it. “We have just completed the technology mission. Now science takes over,” said Annadurai. In the scientific study, researchers will analyse the data and validate concepts by reviewing with peers to identify regions of water.
In January, researchers said data analysed from Kaguya suggested there was some water ice on the Shackleton crater, a permanently shadowed area and a likely place of watery-ice because of the lack of sunlight.
Now, as Nasa prepares to send its lunar reconnaissance orbiter, or LRO, in June to identify water among other things, Chandrayaan will play an anchor role in supporting the mission, said Annadurai. While the Indian mission will identify regions to land a rover, Nasa’s LRO will hover 50km above the moon’s surface, study how the lunar radiation environment will affect humans, and identify safe landing sites for man’s return to the moon.