Earth’s closest celestial neighbour remains a mystery. Does it have water? Is it a reservoir of Helium-3, the future fuel? It’s time to find out, writes BR Srikanth.
It's not just poets like Christina Rossetti or Walter John de la Mare who are fascinated by the moon. A whole bunch of scientists from across the world are queuing up to romance the moon. Beginning this month, Earth's closest astral neighbour would endure a string of callers from Japan, China, India, the United States and Russia. Some of them would fiercely rip open a ravine, others would pass by harmlessly, after peering at lunar soil.
A new outpost
These trysts may help solve many mysteries of the solar system, besides discovering new minerals and paving a way for a refueling station on the moon for future missions to Mars. Beyond a glamorous tourist destination, the moon can be explored as a new habitat for man.
Unlike in the 1960s, when lunar missions were part of a space race between the United States and the erstwhile USSR, present-day missions are marked by cooperation rather than competition. Scientists are collaborating to gather every little detail, an exercise that could lead to a permanent base on moon.
"We consider the moon an important outpost that will support other planetary missions. At some point, it might even turn into a strategic base if wars occur in space," says Prof UR Rao, former chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), and head of ISRO's Advisory Committee on Space Sciences.
Scientists believe the moon was born out of a tumultuous event: a giant asteroid about the size of Mars slammed into the Earth about 4.6 billion years ago. Then, some 3.9 billion years ago, both the Earth and moon were bombarded by debris left over from planet formation. Signs of such cataclysmic events on Earth have been wiped off by subsequent continental plate movements, volcanic activity and weathering, but are well-preserved on moon. The moon might reveal many of these secrets.
One of them is: is there water on moon? NASA's Clementine satellite launched in 1994 and the Lunar Prospector four years later found that vast quantities of water ice might have accumulated in areas near the poles, which do not receive sunlight and remain at temperatures below minus 200 degree Celsius.
Another key poser would be dumps of Helium-3, billed as the fuel of the 21st century. It is extremely potent, nonpolluting and with virtually no radioactive byproduct. Scientists estimate there's about one million tonnes of Helium-3 on moon, enough to power the world for thousands of years. The equivalent of a single space shuttle load or roughly 25 tonnes could supply the entire United States' energy needs for a year, according to Apollo17 astronaut Dr Harrison Schmitt.
The probes by various countries will, thus, be fitted with instruments for high-resolution mapping of the moon. "We'll be able to observe the moon and plan where to land or mine. Our mission Chandrayaan-I, will yield high resolution 3-D images of the moon's surface. It will also detect Radon gas, that's puffed out by the lunar soil and indicates volcanic activity," Rao explains.
Hitting the moon
Some of these missions, including Chandrayaan-I, will crash into moon's surface to collect geological data. "These details will help us design landing and transportation systems for future projects, and trace the ideal location to build an observatory or a lunar base," says Prof Roddam Narasimha, member, Indian Space Commission.
The 30-kg impactor onboard the Indian orbiter will hit the lunar surface ahead of NASA's spacecraft. "We'll release the impactor in the beginning of our lunar mission and record the data. It'll be a free fall, but we want to try and glide it to a place chosen by us," says Dr JN Goswami, principal investigator for Chandrayaan-I and director, Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad. "The communication link between the impactor and the orbiter will remain intact till the moment of the impact, so we are going to gather information on the surface," he adds.
On terra firma, too, scientists are building new facilities to track the lunar missions. ISRO will carry out operations from its Deep Space Network station at Bellalu, 40 km from Bangalore. It will be linked with similar facilities across the world to piece together facts and solve many a puzzle.
All these space faring nations will join to build a new colony, first on moon, and perhaps later on Mars.
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