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India's First Moon Probe Lost, But Data May Yield Finds

Ker Than
for National Geographic News
August 31, 2009
 
India's first moon exploration mission was cut short Sunday after the country's national space agency lost radio contact with Chandrayaan-1, an unmanned spacecraft orbiting the moon.

The cause of the communications breakdown is unknown, but repeated attempts to reestablish contact with the probe failed.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) terminated the mission over the weekend.

"The ISRO personnel managing the mission have made it clear there is little hope," said Carle Pieters, a planetary geologist at Brown University in Rhode Island.

Treasure Trove of Data

Despite the mission's premature end, the probe has already yielded a treasure trove of useful data, said Pieters, who is the principal investigator of the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3), a NASA instrument on Chandrayaan-1.

Chandrayaan-1, which launched in October 2008, was meant to spend at least two years in lunar orbit sending back information from its suite of 11 scientific instruments. (See a picture of the Chandrayaan-1 launch.)

NASA's mapping tool, one of the probe's five foreign-built instruments, was designed to map the lunar surface in unprecedented detail in visible and near-infrared light.

Part of the M3 mission was to determine the distribution of elements and minerals on the moon's surface, data that NASA had hoped would be useful for future manned missions to the moon or other planets.

(Related: "Apollo 11: 5 Little-Known Facts About the Moon Landing.")

Before the probe lost contact, the M3 instrument had successfully completed a cursory global survey of mineralogy on the moon, Pieters noted.

That first step was supposed to set the stage for higher-resolution mapping of the lunar surface.

But "even with the low-resolution data we have from the first phase, we have several new and completely unexpected discoveries," Pieters said.

The team is not yet revealing what those discoveries might be, because other scientists are still reviewing the data.

Pieters called the early loss of Chandrayaan-1 an "enormous disappointment," but she said her team is already looking into a future flight of a duplicate M3 instrument.

"When you see fantastic results and taste success," she said, "it's almost criminal not to plan for the future."
 

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