India is sending an unmanned space-ship to the moon, with take-off possibly as soon as Wednesday morning, Indian time [UPDATE: Take-off was successful!]:
The launch of Chandrayaan-1, as the vehicle is called (it means, roughly translated, â€œMoon Craft-1â€) comes about a year after Chinaâ€™s first moon mission. The Indian mission is scheduled to last for two years, prepare a three-dimensional atlas of the moon and prospect its surface for natural resources, including uranium, a coveted fuel for nuclear power plants, according to the Indian Space Research Organization, or I.S.R.O. Allusions to an Asian space race could not be contained, even as Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, was due for a visit to China later in the week. (link)
Most of the Times article on the event focuses on the “Asian space race,” between India and China. Some more coverage in the Indian newspapers here, here, and especially here. The ExpressIndia story has the most technical information about the trip I’ve seen:
Earlier in the day, Prof J N Goswami, director of the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad, who is also the principal scientist for the Chandrayaan-1 mission, spoke about the possibility of finding helium-3 on the lunar surface. â€œAlthough generating power through nuclear fusion of helium-3 is a distant dream, but the possibilities are immense,â€ he said. The samples brought to Earth by the Apollo mission have indicated that Iron titanium oxide traps helium-3 molecules on the lunar surface, he said.
Goswami said he-3 content is very low. For every 100,000 helium-4 molecules, there is only one helium-3 molecule on the lunar surface. Besides, the scientific community is yet to simulate the conditions necessary for nuclear fusion. But, if Chandrayaan-1 is able to locate probable areas for finding helium-3, that in itself will be a very big achievement. It will help eliminate the two stages of producing deuterium from hydrogen and then producing helium-3 from deuterium, he added. (link)
Though I can hardly claim to be an expert on the science, from what I’ve been reading I’m skeptical at the outset about the search for uranium or helium-3 on the moon, mainly because I’m not sure what they would do with these materials even if they were to find some — build a lab? Bring it back? (Can anyone find more detailed accounts regarding the specific scientific goals for this mission? What exactly is going in Chandrayaan-1′s various payloads?)
One could argue — and I’m sure some will — that it’s hard to justify spending lots of money on a mission to the moon, when India obviously has lots of other issues to contend with right now.
I can see the objections, but I still think it’s pretty cool. Events like this can have huge symbolic significance, and I hope the launch tomorrow goes well. [UPDATE: It did. The rocket is supposed to reach the moon in fifteen days.]