On August 23, 2023, India made history by becoming the fourth country to successfully land on the moon. Unlike previous landings, though, India has managed to touch down on the lunar south pole, an area researchers have been hoping to explore ever since 2008, when newly-discovered evidence pointed to the possible existence of lunar water.
Discovering lunar water has not just been a goal of India’s; in fact, many leading countries in space exploration have been bent on finding evidence of water beyond Earth, for liquid water indicates a place that could sustain extraterrestrial life. Furthermore, water, chemically known as H2O, can be split into Hydrogen and Oxygen through a process called electrolysis, which runs current through water containing electrolytes. This method, however, requires a lot of energy and is mainly used on a small scale, but the possibility of splitting potential water on the moon is particularly attractive since drinking water, Hydrogen fuel, and Oxygen air would fuel lunar environments and industries if mined. Bringing water from Earth is also very costly, which furthers the want for water on the moon.
The first discovery of possible frozen water happened during the 1994 NASA Clementine mission. Clementine, a spacecraft launched to orbit and observe the moon over a two month period, found evidence of ice in a crater by the moon’s south pole. Later, in 1998, NASA’s Lunar Prospector orbited the moon over 19 months to specifically probe the moon’s surface and look for ice by the poles. Finally, it crashed down on the moon, creating a dust cloud. However, the cloud was observed to show no similarities to one having water vapor. Despite these observations, the Lunar Prospector mission yielded data suggesting that areas of the moon that get no sun, such as craters within the South pole, had the highest concentrations of hydrogen. Therefore, it was thought that these craters may contain frozen water. This theory was confirmed in 2008 by researchers finding Hydrogen in small volcanic glass. This demonstrated that water may have been on the moon at the time when volcanoes had erupted on its surface, disproving the initial beliefs during the Apollo landings in 1969 that the lunar surface was void of liquid. If that wasn’t enough, India’s first lunar orbiter Chandrayaan-1 (2008) provided a definitive answer by using a science instrument nicknamed M3 (provided by NASA) to see how the moon’s surface absorbed infrared light. In 2009, this instrument found water in polar regions of the moon, and its analysis in 2018 made the answer to our dwindling question a conclusive yes.
Water is only able to exist on the moon because of its permanently shadowed regions such as the craters in its poles. Because the moon is tilted far less than Earth’s 23 degree tilt from the plane in which planets orbit the sun, the sun will hover the horizon by the moon’s poles, leaving the rims of large craters to block light from ever coming in. This results in temperatures of around -418° F in the holes. The water freezes into ice and cannot evaporate even with the moon’s miniscule atmosphere. In 2019, the LCROSS spacecraft (initially launched in 2019) sent a projectile into one of these craters and flew into its cloud of debris. The debris was soon looked at and discovered to have tiny bits of water ice, which fueled others to try and visit these craters.
After the failed crash landing of Chandrayaan-2, the Chandrayaan-3 mission followed in pursuit by being the first mission to launch a lunar lander (Vikram) and a lunar rover (Pragyan) onto the south pole of the moon. Currently, the lander is navigating this foreign area, which has many craters and high hills. It will learn about the landscape of the moon and perform some on-site scientific experiments over the course of two weeks.
The landing of Chandrayaan-3 is a remarkable event that will further enhance our knowledge of the moon. As science and technology improve, space exploration will only continue to get bigger, especially as temperatures rise and climate change accelerates on Earth. The power of math and science fuel our explorations, and will prove to be vital in upcoming years for universal travel.
Written by Ben Wu