Space scientists Tom McCord, Georgiana Kramer and Jean-Philippe Combe, of the Bear Fight Center in the Rendezvous, worked on the M3 mission that discovered evidence of water on the lunar surface. Photo by Sue Misao

Space scientists Tom McCord, Georgiana Kramer and Jean-Philippe Combe, of the Bear Fight Center in the Rendezvous, worked on the M3 mission that discovered evidence of water on the lunar surface. Photo by Sue Misao

Dec. 30, 2009

By JOYCE CAMPBELL

When India’s lunar satellite Chandrayaan-1 began transmitting data back to Earth early this year, a team of scientists in the Methow Valley set about investigating the images and made a discovery that would change the world’s perception of the moon.

The scientists at the Bear Fight Center, in the upper Rendezvous near Winthrop, found water on the moon. The water is not ice or liquid or gas, explained lunar scientist Georgiana Kramer, Ph.D. It’s in a molecular form somewhere between a liquid and a gas. Kramer calls it space dew.

The discovery was announced in September by NASA and was featured as the cover story on Science magazine’s October issue. Last week, Bear Fight Center scientists Kramer; Thomas B. McCord, Ph.D.; and Jean-Philippe Combe, Ph.D.; attended the annual American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco to reveal and discuss more details of their discovery and research at the gathering of 15,000 scientists from around the planet.

McCord is the senior scientist, director and founder of the Bear Fight Center, which he established in 2002 as an affiliate of Columbus Technologies and Service, Inc. He specializes in research into the nature of the solar system and is a flight team member for the space mission. He is a member of the investigative team under the principle investigator, Dr. Carle Pieters of Brown University.

The NASA mission is known as M3, and pronounced “M-cube.” M3 is a Moon Mineralogy Mapper and it was a guest instrument aboard India’s moon orbiting satellite, Chandrayaan-1, translated “journey to the moon.”

M3 was one of 11 instruments aboard India’s first deep-space mission that launched in October 2008. A project of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), the goals of the mission included expanding scientific knowledge of the moon, upgrading India’s technological capability, and providing challenging opportunities for planetary research for the younger generation.

The two-year mission ended early when ISRO lost radio contact with the spacecraft and terminated the project in August 2009. But before it was over, according to NASA’s website, the M3’s high-resolution cameras relayed more than 70,000 digital images.

M3 is a spectrometer, and works much like a digital camera, said Kramer. A color photo is a two-dimensional image made of red, green and blue. M3’s images are cubes, made of 85 colors or a higher resolution of 260 colors.

“It was a bit hard to believe,” said McCord of the water discovery. “We worked with the discovery and it was pretty obvious when we looked.” He said that as scientists, they have to look more than once and try to find errors in calibration.

The other job of scientists is to ask questions, like where did the water molecules come from, how many are made, what happens to these molecules and how do they move around?

Kramer describes the process of water molecule creation as coming and going with the lunar day cycle. The molecules are created when charged energy particles known as a solar wind hit the surface of the moon.

McCord gave a talk at the conference last week on the project and presented his interpretation of the water discovery. The process involves interaction of solar wind striking crystallized minerals that are already rich in oxygen. The damaged site incubates, forming water molecules, a process McCord calls surface chemistry.

McCord speculated on the connection of the M3 project and NASA’s LCross project, which also revealed water on the moon when the rocket crashed into a permanently shadowed crater near the moon’s south pole on Oct. 19. The impact released a plume that contained water molecules in greater quantity than what was analyzed by M3 project scientists who only saw the top few millimeters of lunar surface.

Water molecules may migrate from where they are made when exposed to ultraviolet rays, according to McCord. They could move into the shadows where there is no solar wind, get trapped and accumulate, he said. “Nobody’s sure but that’s the story that’s emerging.”

McCord used to work with the Apollo program until the effort and the money for the program went to almost zero. He said that after a hiatus of several decades, there is interest now, partly a desire to fly a person or persons back to the moon as a stepping-stone to Mars.

“The moon is like Antarctica was a century ago,” said McCord. China, Japan and India all want to go to the moon. “If nations want representation, they have to be active. The U.S. has to stay active to keep up.”

Their confirmation of water on the moon is a scientific discovery of far reaching proportions. It not only contradicts a long held belief that the moon is a dry, desolate sphere, but opens up more opportunity for the moon as a jumping off place into the solar system for manned space exploration.

At the remote science station near Winthrop, the space scientists and computer scientists download and analyze mission data. “Finally, we process and interpret the data to extract the new science,” he said. “This is of course the most exciting part, but if one does not enjoy the entire process, one never gets to the end.”

Along with a support staff and student intern, they work with organizations like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to develop ideas for new missions.

They work with Boeing, NASA and university laboratories with newly developing measurement and instrument technologies to put together instrument packages to accomplish science objectives, said McCord.

The Bear Fight Center is currently involved with NASA and JPL and the European Space Agency to complete planning of the next Outer Solar System Flagship Mission to fly two spacecraft to the Jupiter system. It is a $3-billion-plus joint mission over 20 years and should be announced in the 2011 fiscal budget, he said.

The team is currently involved in five active missions, including the M3-Chandrayaan-1. The others are Cassini, Rosetta, Mars Express and Dawn. For more information on the Bear Fight Center visit www.bearfightcenter.com.