India’s Space Research Organisation (ISRO) made headlines earlier this week when it revealed that its Chandrayaan-3 mission, which touched down on the lunar surface in late August, inadvertently created a lunar mess. The mission marked a significant milestone as it became India’s first successful Moon mission, but it left behind an unexpected legacy in the form of a ‘lunar ejecta halo.’
The Chandrayaan-3 mission’s Vikram lander, which landed near the lunar south pole on August 23, initially operated without incident. Over the course of its brief existence, it conducted surface experiments and entered a planned sleep mode in early September, with hopes of reawakening on September 22. Unfortunately, the lander did not wake up as planned.
Despite the short duration of the mission, scientists were able to make valuable discoveries that provide insights into lunar geology and the challenges of future lunar missions. ISRO researchers reported that when the Vikram lander touched down, it ejected over two tons of lunar epiregolith – the top layer of Moon dust – which spread over an area exceeding 100 square meters around the landing site.
The discovery of this lunar ejecta halo, created by the descent stage thrusters during the landing, offers valuable insights into the composition of Moon dust and its potential hazards. The findings were published last week in the Journal of the Indian Society of Remote Sensing. The ejecta halo was described as an “irregular bright patch surrounding the lander.”
These findings have broader implications for future lunar missions, including NASA’s ambitious Artemis program. Artemis III, scheduled for 2025, plans to send astronauts to the Moon, with Artemis IV aiming to establish human lunar space stations by 2028. The lunar surface, especially the fine and abrasive silicate-heavy material, has proven to be hazardous to past lunar explorers.
The European Space Agency has reported that exposure to Moon dust has caused various symptoms among astronauts, ranging from wheezing to nasal congestion, with some effects lasting for days. The dust has even been known to give the inside of spacecraft a distinct gunpowder-like smell. The low lunar gravity exacerbates the problem by keeping epiregolith particles suspended in the air within spacecraft, posing health risks to astronauts.
One study has already warned about the “chronic or long-term effects of such dust exposure,” which could become a significant problem for future lunar missions. As space agencies worldwide prepare to return humans to the Moon, understanding and mitigating the hazards associated with lunar dust will be of paramount importance.
In summary, India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission, while short-lived, has uncovered valuable insights into the challenges posed by lunar dust. As space agencies like NASA and others gear up for future lunar missions, these findings will play a crucial role in ensuring the safety and well-being of astronauts exploring the Moon’s rugged terrain.