Mahesh Anand’s Endeavours to Unravel Moon Mysteries

Meet Prof. Mahesh Anand – ESSC Space Science & Exploration Panel Chair and Professor of Planetary Science and Exploration at The Open University, UK.

By Shorouk ElkobrSI

Feb 10, 2022

Born during a waxing crescent Moon phase on October 18, 1974, Prof Mahesh Anand did not know that this illuminating celestial body was about to become his true fascination.

As a geologist and planetary science aficionado, Mahesh Anand spends his days unravelling the mysteries and galactic history of the Moon. For the past 15 years, Anand’s main research area has been lunar science, primarily volatiles such as water.

“I used to go out in the field to collect rocks to study Earth. Lunar science opened a new puzzle for me. How did the Moon come about in the first place? When was it formed? What are those lunar features that we can see with our naked eyes? What is their history? And what are they telling us about how planetary bodies in our Solar System, and presumably other solar systems, form and evolve? It is one curiosity after another,” explains Anand.

Prof. Mahesh Anand © The Open University

Anand’s career took him around the world, from working at the University of Tennessee, USA to the Natural History Museum in London to The Open University in the UK. His research work has spanned geological studies of diamonds, ancient igneous terrains on Earth and Martian and lunar samples. 

“I probably was at the right place at the right time,” says Anand. “When I started my career investigating Moon rocks, all the discoveries about the water on the Moon were being published. And I happened to be in a place where I could frame a research project to look for water in the lunar samples, and the rest became history.” 

Anand has authored over a hundred research papers in journals of high scientific standing and supervised over 30 PhD students and postdoctoral researchers at The Open University. His recent research has focused on understanding the history of volatiles in lunar samples; specifically, the abundance and distribution of water in the lunar interior.

Taking Planetary Passion to the Public

Behind glass displays at the Natural History Museum, Prof. Anand found a new love for diamonds. His primary job at the museum was on Martian meteorites, where he worked with a sculptor to convey the idea of the cosmos by looking at pictures of rocks under a microscope. However, his passion for public engagement of science motivated him to participate in exhibitions to help audiences learn what stories rocks and minerals tell us about our planet and the universe. How did our only home, this unimaginably old and yet forever young Earth, survive for billions of years? How is it still evolving?

“I’m more interested in flawed diamonds than flawless ones. It is what is inside the diamond that tells us more about Earth than the diamond itself. But you can’t just approach people and say, can I talk to you about these inclusions in diamond? However, if you have an exhibition like that, everybody wants to come and they would not mind spending a few minutes knowing a bit more about the science of diamonds other than their price,” explains Anand.

The Vault © Natural History Museum

In the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the Apollo Moon landing (July 2019), Anand proposed a community-led exhibit titled Living on the Moon at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. Along with his colleagues from Universities across the UK, Anand addressed the question of whether life on the Moon is possible. The goal was to bring lunar science to the public, especially kids. In one week, the team interacted with almost 5000 people. 

Living on the Moon postcard © The Open University
Mahesh Anand with some of the Living on the Moon team members at the Royal Society © The Open University

A European Lunar Community & ESSC Journey 

Since Neil Armstrong’s first step on the Moon, many scientists have thought that the lunar surface was bone dry. However, in 2008, Saal et al. reported findings of significant water quantities in volcanic green glass beads formed on the Moon’s surface through fire fountain eruptions. In December 2020, the Chang’E-5 Chinese lunar lander gathered more than 60 ounces of lunar soil and rock samples, and based on measurements, likely encountered water 239,000 miles away from Earth. Anand co-authored a Nature paper, reporting on water abundances from the lunar samples returned by China’s Chang’e-5 mission. 

Back when Anand first moved to the UK in 2004, before the discovery of lunar water, he wanted to bring together people interested in lunar science and exploration. He organized the very first lunar meeting in late 2004 in London called the Exploration of the Moon in the 21st century 

This allowed him to be involved in projects with world-renowned international organisations, such as the European Space Agency and the NASA Lunar Science Institute (NLSI), which was founded in 2008. Anand’s proactivity in establishing a lunar community led to him becoming the chair of the UK node of NLSI (now known as the NASA Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI). 

In 2012, he expanded the UK lunar community by co- founding the European Lunar Symposium, which in its ten successful years has brought together lunar scholars and researchers, allowing for global scientific exchange.  

Anand joined the European Space Sciences Committee (ESSC) in 2014, and in 2020, he became the chair of the Solar System and Exploration Panel. 

“I just received an invitation one day from Jean Claude Worms to join the ESSC,” says Anand. “I was lucky to have senior colleagues at The Open University who have been great mentors to me and who told me how it was quite an influential body.” 

In the new space race to investigate lunar water, future missions need to look beyond one country or one institute to answer major lunar questions. Multinational committees such as the ESSC bring together brilliant scientists, who may not otherwise have the chance to collaborate, to influence policymaking around Europe. 

Anand concludes, “Science doesn’t happen in isolation. We are collectively trying to decode the Moon’s mysteries. Collaborations are thus critical, and it is one of the best things that I like about academia. It gives us the freedom to think creatively and beyond boundaries.”