Bangalore: “Scientists around the world have come to understand that the Moon is clearly the stepping stone for the future of the human species beyond the Earth,” according to Carle Pieters, planetary geologist and Principal Investigator for National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper, one of the 11 scientific instruments onboard Chandrayaan-I that recently detected iron-bearing minerals in a lunar crater.
“And so it is no coincidence that four countries – India, China, Japan and U.S. – are showing simultaneous interest in the Earth’s celestial neighbour,” she says.
Professor Pieters is now faculty at the Department of Geological Sciences, Brown University, U.S. The Moon could support future explorations of Mars or near-Earth asteroids through fuel and, “if we get lucky,” water resources too, she says.
Out of a high profile closed-door meeting of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), NASA and the European Space Agency held here on Friday to evaluate the first 100 days of Chandrayaan’s voyage, Professor Pieters spoke to The Hindu about the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3), an imaging spectrometer developed by her team that will provide the first map of minerals on the entire lunar surface.
It will study the Moon as the “cornerstone” to unravelling the history of the solar system and Earth and also as a “very long term investment.”
The integrated strength of Japan’s Kaguya, China’s Chang’e-1, India’s Chandryaan-I and soon US’ Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter “is a treasure I have been waiting 30 years for.” She is certain that one day, “perhaps in the next 50 years,” we will be looking at using resources on the Moon. “But we still do not know what those resources will be.”
“The Moon contains records for over four billion years – records that have disappeared from the Earth.” Professor Pieters is particularly excited about a 2,500 km-wide crater formed by an asteroid impact – the South Pole Aitken basin, which is the oldest and largest crater that dominates the permanently shadowed south pole of the Moon.
This crater is rich in olivine, which, like pyroxene detected by the M3 recently, contains iron. Found in crystals deep inside the Moon’s crust, olivine can tell us the story of the Moon and its closest neighbour, the Earth.
The lunar poles could also be repositories of water-ice from comet impact aeons ago, a material that the M3 is looking for too. “The current expectation is that water-ice is buried in the lunar poles. But we do not know yet – it is going to take several instruments to answer that question, including the M3” Professor Pieters adds.