On November 14, 2008, at 20:06 hours IST, the Moon Impact Probe (MIP) was separated from the Chandrayaan. It was Nehru’s one hundred and nineteen birth anniversary so it was fitting that the MIP carried the Indian flag with it. About 25 minutes later the MIP successfully impacted the moon’s surface at a predetermined site on the southern lunar pole.
MIP also carried CHACE (CHandra’s Altitudinal Composition Explorer) on board. CHACE was a sensitive instrument built to find elements present on the moon. Fifteen minutes before the MIP separation began CHACE was switched on. CHACE was built for these 25 minutes. As the MIP hurtled towards the moon surface CHACE was mapping the elements present on the moon. The scientists at ISRO were getting this data live. Within minutes, that night, they knew they had found water on the moon.
NASA Payloads - M3 and miniSAR
But MIP was not the only instrument on board the Chandrayaan that was looking for water. Apart from the MIP from ISRO, Chandrayaan also carried the M3 (Moon Minerology Mapper) and miniSAR both from NASA. Unlike CHACE, these two instruments continued to be on the Chandrayaan for its lifetime and continued beaming data and images till the end on August 29, 2009. Chandrayaan was launched on October 22, 2008, and was placed at a height of 100 km from the moon surface. So M3 and miniSAR looked at the moon from this 100 km distance.
The first images from M3 became available on November 22, 2008; soon it started sending more images of the moon. The advantage of M3 was that it had more than the 25 minutes that CHACE got to look at the moon. But CHACE had the advantage of getting a very close look at the moon. Till the very end till it impacted the moon CHACE was sending data.
Leading the M3 team was Dr. Carle M Pieters, from Brown University, USA, a distinguished scientist with many years of experience. She completed her PhD from MIT, USA, in 1977. She had overall responsibility for the success of the M3 instruments and the Science Team’s activities.
The first images from miniSAR became available on November 17, 2008. Leading the miniSAR team was Dr. Paul D. Spudis, from Lunar and Planetary Institute, USA, a well known scientist with many years of experience.
Both Dr. Pieters and Dr. Spudis had been part of several moon and space missions by NASA in the past. At the time of the Chandrayaan flight in 2008-2009, both Dr. Pieters and Dr. Spudis were well known experts whose views about water on the moon were respected by the scientific community. They had several papers to their credit in which they had speculated on the presence of water on the moon. As early as 1996, Dr. Spudis’ paper was published in Science, where he and his team had argued about the presence of ice on the moon. But in all these earlier works the evidence had been indirect.
ISRO's Dare to Dream Team
ISRO on the other hand did not have any star scientists. This was their first mission to the moon. Dr. Syed Maqbool Ahmed was chosen to head this team. Unlike the NASA scientists this team had zero experience in space borne instrumentation. Dr. Ahmed had obtained a PhD from Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad and was an associate professor at the Institute for Plasma Research, Gandhinagar. Dr. Ahmed moved from Ahmedabad to Trivandrum in 2006 and stayed for the duration that CHACE was being built.
Starting in 2006, Dr. Ahmed and his team worked for 2 years. First they had to create the lunar ambience in their lab. They created a vacuum to simulate the moon in their lab. Then they built CHACE, the most sensitive instrument to leave Earth’s gravity. In Dr. Ahmed’s own words they were designers, engineers, plumbers, electricians and payload scientists who "dared to dream."
The Race to Announce Water on the Moon
Soon after Chandrayaan was in the moon orbit, by early 2009 all the three teams had collected evidence of water on the moon. The race had begun. Who would be the first to announce it to the world? It was not like any of the teams had seen the water with their eyes. So before they could announce it, their finding had to be verified by other scientists.
It took the CHACE team a month to analyze the data and present their findings in the form of evidence to prove the presence of water on the moon. The CHACE team submitted their paper to Science in December 2008. Science is among the most respected journals in the world. Even one paper here is considered a lifetime achievement by most scientists. Their paper was rejected by the reviewers of Science and returned to them in March 2009. In April 2009 they submitted their paper to Nature, another respected journal. Nature also rejected their paper and returned it to them in July 2009.
Meanwhile Dr. Pieters’ team submitted their work to Science. Their paper was accepted in September, 2009 and appeared in Science on October 24, 2009. Based on this paper, on September 24, 2009, NASA and ISRO announced that water had been found on the moon. ISRO chief, Dr. Madhavan Nair, could only allude to the CHACE discovery. But since its findings were rejected by both Science and Nature he could not claim the credit on behalf of ISRO for finding water on the moon. So all he said was that MIP had ALSO found water while descending to the moon on November 14. But to the world the discovery was made by the NASA team lead by Dr. Pieters.
The CHACE team resubmitted their paper in November 2009 to Space and Planetary Sciences. This paper was accepted on March 8, 2010. But even prior to this Dr. Spudis’ team’s paper about ice on moon had been accepted in Geophysical Research Letters on February 22, 2010. Dr. Spudis' team had submitted their paper to this journal on December 22, 2009. They submitted a revised version on February 10, 2010.
The Indian team had come third in the race to find water on the moon.
"The Little Prince" by de Antoine de Saint-Exupéry starts with a Turkish astronomer discovering a new asteroid in early 1900, but when he announces it to the world, he is laughed away. Then, some years later, when he and other Turkish people started wearing western style clothes, he announced his discovery again, and this time it was welcomed and applauded. Does Dr. Ahmed’s team need a new set of clothes before Chandrayaan-2?
Read: The Chandrayaan-I and Water on the Moon Series