Originally Posted by latimes
Declaring "this is not your father's moon," NASA scientists said today that last month's mission to punch a hole in the lunar surface found significant amounts of water in a permanently shadowed crater at the moon's south pole.
"The moon is alive," declared Anthony Colaprete, the chief scientist for the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite mission.
According to Colaprete and other researchers, the mission measured about 25 gallons of water in the form of vapor and ice after punching a hole about 100 feet across in the surface of the moon. While that's not enough to fill a bathtub, it could be evidence there is enough water at the poles for future astronauts to use to live off the land. And it's far more than anyone expected following the Apollo missions of the 1960s and '70s, which pronounced the moon a dead, forbidding world.
"This is painting a surprising new picture of the moon," said Greg Delory, a space scientist at UC Berkeley.
The $79-million lunar crater mission was launched in June to try to uncover the source of large quantities of hydrogen that had been measured by other spacecraft in lunar craters at the poles. If there was water on the moon, scientists reasoned, it would be in these shadowed craters, which haven't seen sunlight in billions of years.
Because those craters were hidden from view, scientists decided the best way to find out what was in them was to go there. Early on the morning of Oct. 9, the lunar crater satellite targeted the Cabeus crater at the south pole, first steering its companion Centaur rocket into the surface. The satellite then flew through the cloud of debris and dust kicked up by the Centaur, using its near-infrared and visible light spectrometers, along with other instruments, to taste the contents of the debris cloud. Spectrometers identify compounds by analyzing the light they emit or absorb.
No cloud showed up at first, causing some scientists to worry that the Centaur had hit rock. But the scientific team became excited when they started looking at the data transmitted back to Earth just before the satellite itself crashed a short distance from the Centaur.
The "eureka" moment came in recent weeks when the team realized a strong signature for water was picked up in more than one instrument. "It's a pretty tight fit for water vapor and ice," Colaprete said in a briefing at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., which managed the mission.
"What's really exciting is we've only hit one spot," said Peter Schultz, a geology professor at Brown University and a co-investigator on the mission. "It's kind of like when you're drilling for oil. Once you find it in one place, there's a greater chance you'll find more nearby."
This is not the first discovery of water on the moon. Several weeks ago, India's Chandrayan spacecraft found clear signs of a microscopic film of water mixed in with lunar soils, or regolith, over large areas of the moon. But those amounts were so insignificant that it is unlikely the water would be of use to future colonists. This latest discovery, however, is a potentially significant source of water, the scientists said.
It's unlikely the water, at least at this one site, is in the form of an ice sheet, Colaprete said. It's more likely to be mixed in with the soil.
The question now is, where did it come from? Possible sources include comets and asteroids, which are considered a likely source of the water on Earth. It's also possible the hydrogen was delivered by solar wind to the lunar surface, where it is converted to water and travels to the shadowed craters. There, the water could be stored in the form of ice for billions of years. Polar craters on the moon are some of the coldest places in the solar system, with temperatures dipping below minus-360 degrees Fahrenheit.
The scientists hinted that other surprises may be coming in the next few months, as they continue studying the data from the mission, dubbed the LCROSS. "The full understanding of the LCROSS data may take some time. The data is that rich," Colaprete said.
This new picture of a dynamic moon comes as the Obama administration is reconsidering the future of the human spaceflight program. The Vision for Space Exploration announced by the Bush administration in 2004 called for a return to the moon by 2020 and the eventual colonization of Mars.
But the Augustine Commission, appointed by the president to review those plans, reported just weeks ago that NASA will not get back to the moon any time soon unless it gets a lot more money, at least $3 billion a year. The commission also questioned whether the moon is a worthy goal, citing the "been there, done that" factor.
These new discoveries could be game-changers, since they raise the prospect that a colony on the moon could be virtually self-sustaining.
Water is not only useful for drinking, but it could be broken down into oxygen for breathing. Hydrogen and oxygen are also potent sources of rocket fuel, raising the prospect that the moon could serve as a low-gravity launching pad for missions further out into the solar system.