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One big step for India, a giant leap for mankind
Srinivas Laxman & Prashanth G N, TNN 25 September 2009, 12:47am IST
BANGALORE/MUMBAI: It is a giant leap for India's space programme and the biggest scientific discovery of the 21st Century. India's maiden moon mission, Chandrayaan-1 has found water, a discovery that scientists say will upend thinking about space and boost research. And, of course, it has helped shake off the failure tag from the Rs 386-crore Chandrayaan-I project that was aborted last month.
The historic development, that TOI in a global newsbreak reported in Wednesday's edition, took place just prior to the termination of the mission on August 30, 2009. Although water was spotted by the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3), a NASA probe and one of the 11 payloads on the spacecraft, glory shone on ISRO for the discovery that was made after nearly five decades of lunar exploration by Western nations.
``If it weren't for them (ISRO), we wouldn't have been able to make this discovery,'' Carle Pieters, the Brown University researcher who analyzed the data from the NASA probe.
Pieters, a planetary geologist, has told scientists the discovery ``opens a whole new avenue of lunar research but that we have to understand the physics of it to utilize it''. A Brown University statement on Thursday said, ``The discovery by M3 promises to reinvigorate studies of the moon and potentially upend thinking of how it originated.''
Water molecules (H20) and hydroxyl ^ a charged molecule consisting of one oxygen atom and one hydrogen atom ^ were discovered across the surface of the Moon. The M3 had covered almost 97% of the Moon before Chandrayaan-1 was terminated.
Brown University scientists say that while the abundance is not precisely known, ``as much as 1,000 water molecule parts-per-million could be in the lunar soil: harvesting one tonne of the top layer of the Moon's surface would yield as much as 32 ounces of water''.
ISRO chairman Madhavan Nair described it a path-breaking event and Chandrayaan-I project director Mylswamy Annadurai called it one of the greatest examples in international collaboration in space.
Chandrayaan's surprise find triggered tremendous excitement among Indian space scientists who were disappointed that the mission had to be terminated because of a communication breakdown.
Narendra Bhandari, who is associated with Chandrayaan, told TOI from Ahmedabad: ``It is a good observation and after all it was one of the main aims of the Indian Moon programme. According to well-known astrophysicist, S M Chitre, water on the Moon could have been deposited by the comets several billion years ago. ``The comets are like water carriers,'' he told TOI.
Regarding the significance of the discovery, Chitre said that it will have far reaching consequences with regard to the human colonization of the Moon and future rocket launches from the lunar surface. ``The real significance of this mission is that it surveyed the entire moon. Nasa's Apollo manned missions between 1969 and 1972 did not find any water at all because they surveyed only a bare 25% of the lunar surface,'' he said.
President of National Space Society (NSS), Suresh Naik, told TOI finding water will help in making rocket fuel.
``Launching rockets from the Moon definitely have an advantage because the escape velocity is much less than on Earth,'' he said. On Earth, the escape velocity, ie, the speed a rocket needs to escape the Earth's gravity, is 11km per second. With the Moon's gravity being one-sixth that of the Earth's, the escape velocity would be much less, he explained. In plain terms, it means less energy is needed to launch rockets from the Moon.
The US, Russia and China are exploring the possibility of building human habitats on the Moon after 2020. Space experts said that in this race, India cannot lag behind and Isro officials also have not ruled this out.
Pieters said findings from M3 reveal new questions about ``where the water molecules come from and where they may be going''. Scientists have for long speculated that water molecules may migrate from non-polar regions of the Moon to the poles, where they are stored as ice in ultra-frigid pockets of craters that never receive sunlight. If, indeed, the water molecules are mobile, there is then the possibility of getting water to the permanently shadowed craters. She said: ``When we say water on the Moon, we are not talking about lakes, oceans or even puddles. Water on the Moon means molecules of water and hydroxyl that interact with molecules of rock and dust specifically in the top millimeters of the Moon's surface,'' she explained. The M3 team found water molecules and hydroxyl at diverse areas of the sunlit region of the Moon's surface as well as at the Moon's higher latitudes where it seemed more definitive in presence. The M3 discovery has been confirmed by data from two NASA spacecrafts ^ the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) ^ on the Cassini spacecraft and High-Resolution Infrared Imaging Spectrometer on the EPOXI spacecraft.
The M3 is a joint project of Nasa's Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Brown University.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and US space agency NASA should deploy surface robotic penetrator in 'Chandrayaan-II' mission to study more about the presence of water molecules on moon, former President APJ Abdul Kalam has suggested.
"I suggested to both ISRO and NASA to work on future mission of Chandrayaan-II using moon surface robotic penetrator during my recent visit to California Institute of Technology in US, where NASA scientists presented the findings of Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) to Indian scientists," Kalam told students during an interaction on Saturday.