India's moon lander is the first to study the lunar south pole region up close. Here are 5 scientific discoveries it has already made.
- In August, India became the first country to successfully land near the moon's south pole.
- Since touchdown, the moon lander and rover have already made some important discoveries.
Both the mission's Vikram lander and its adorable dog-sized Pragyan rover wasted no time in studying the lunar south pole region with the suite of scientific instruments they brought with them.
1. Presence of sulfur
One of Pragyan's first discoveries was confirming the presence of sulfur on the lunar surface, a feat that was not previously possible from orbiting satellites, the Indian Space Research Organization said in a press release.
The rover fired intense laser pulses at the lunar surface with its Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy instrument. The laser then generated a hot, bright plasma. Scientists then study the light from that plasma to identify the various elements in the sample, like sulfur.
2. Other elements found on the surface
It's not just sulfur — in preliminary analyses, Pragyan has also detected the presence of aluminum, calcium, iron, chromium, and titanium. And ISRO said that it's also hunting for the presence of hydrogen.
The rover's discoveries could help scientists figure out how to mine water on the moon, an advancement that would be critical for future lunar bases.
After all, the lunar poles are some of the most water-rich regions on the moon. They contain enough water ice to fill at least 240,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, per The Planetary Society.
3. A potential moonquake
Three days after landing on the moon, the Instrument for Lunar Seismic Activity (ILSA) payload on the Vikram lander detected an "event," ISRO said in a statement.
ILSA is designed to detect vibrations on the lunar surface, and this "event" was significant compared to the soft rumblings it had measured from the rover driving around on the surface.
"The source of this event is currently under investigation," ISRO said in the statement.
4. Temperature changes underground
Vikram has also measured the soil temperature near the lunar south pole both on the surface and underground, for the first time. The probe measured 3 inches into the soil, and found it was about 140 degrees F colder than at the surface.
The sunlight from the lunar day doesn't penetrate into the layers beneath the lunar surface.
This phenomenon is something you can observe on Earth too, Paul Hayne, a planetary scientist at University of Colorado Boulder, told Nature. He says it's the same thing you can feel by digging your hands down into the sand on a hot day at the beach — if you wriggle your fingers far enough down, the earth will be cool, unaffected by the suns rays.
Scientists hope the measurements they take will help them understand the moon's thermal behavior, ISRO said.
5. First measurement of the moon's ionosphere
Another device on the Vikram lander called the Langmuir probe, which helps characterize plasma, has been able to measure the density and temperature of the moon's ionosphere for the first time, Nature reported.
There's still a lot to be learned about the moon's south pole region. Right now the solar-powered Vikram lander and its rover are scheduled to reawaken later this month after a 14-day night.
The instruments are set to recharge over this fourteen day period. But there's a chance that the rover might not reawaken, because their electronics might die in the extreme cold of the lunar night, Al Jazeera reported.
Pallava Bagla, an author whose written about India's space exploration, told Al Jazeera that India doesn't have access to technology that withstands temperatures less than -184 Fahrenheit. Nighttime temperatures on the moon have been measured as low as -334 F, according to NASA.
Even so, ISRO reports are optimistic. "Hoping for a successful awakening for another set of assignments! Else, it will forever stay there as India's lunar ambassador," ISRO said on X, formerly Twitter.
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