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One of These Days, Chandrayaan …

Bang! Zoom! Straight to tha moon!

That’s what officials at the Indian Space Research Organization hope will happen early tomorrow, when India sends up its first ever mission to the moon: Chandrayaan-1.

Starting at 5:50 a.m. local Indian time, you can watch a live webcast of Chandrayaan-1 lifting off from Satish Dhawan Space Centre on Sriharikota, a barrier island that separates Pulicat Lake from the Bay of Bengal (see map).

If all goes as planned, India’s lunar orbiter will join probes from Japan and China already circling Earth’s only natural satellite.

Japan’s Kaguya probe has been making waves since last November with its HD images and movies, but its visual offerings are largely eye candy.

The Kaguya mission’s scientific goals are to study the moon’s origin, evolution, and geology using a battery of lower-res or nonoptical instruments.

With a few add-ons from NASA, Chandrayaan-1 is expected to use its imagers to create the first hi-res 3-D map of the entire moon’s mineral topography.

mineral-map.jpg

http://speclab.cr.usgs.gov/cuprite95.1um_map.tgif.gif

—Image courtesy USGS

The visual results might be more abstract than Kaguya’s jaw-dropping HD movies, but they’ll reveal a wealth of information about lunar history as well as the locations of any available feedstocks, the resources that could power future lunar bases.

Part of the mineral mapping, for example, will be to look for signs of water ice.

Previous data had shown that the moon has a substantial amount of hydrogen at its poles, and in July researchers extracted ancient H2O from moon rocks brought to Earth during the Apollo missions, bolstering theories that the current lunar surface might not be as dried up as we thought.

Already scientists at the University of Alabama are exploring ways to take advantage of what the moon might have to offer in the way of liquid refreshment.

If there’s water ice hiding under the dirt at the poles or in craters, for example, it could be noninvasively melted with microwaves (the radiation beams, not the namesake appliances) to quench astronauts’ thirst or to act as a mechanical coolant.

Aside from displays of technological prowess, getting prepped for the world’s first moon base seems to be a big driving factor behind the international party currently being staged in lunar orbit.

The U.S. is slated to join the fray next April when NASA launches its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter with the specific goal of studying the moon’s readiness to host humans.

In preparation for that fateful day, the NASA Authorization Act of 2008 already has a clause in its section on a lunar base that says:

“The United States portion of the first human-tended outpost established on the surface of the Moon shall be designated the ‘Neil A. Armstrong Lunar Outpost’.”

So what are the Indian, Chinese, and Japanese portions going to be called?