NASA Craft Finds Water on Moon
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA scientists said Friday that the spacecraft they smashed into the moon last month detected "significant" amounts of water at the bottom of a frigid, shadowed crater.
If other polar craters share a similar composition, the finding increases the possibility that explorers could some day harvest drinking water, air or rocket fuel from the moon's surface and reduce the cost of an outpost.
"We didn't find just a little bit, we found a significant amount," Tony Colaprete, project scientist and principal investigator for the $79 million mission, said in a press conference at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.
An amount equivalent to a dozen two-gallon buckets of water was dislodged from a roughly 65-foot crater when a rocket stage slammed into the moon's south pole on Oct. 9, four minutes before the following spacecraft.
Colaprete said the water was not in the form of an ice sheet atop the targeted Cabeus crater, but likely a mixture of ice and vapor mixed with granules of soil.
"If you could clean it, it would be drinkable water," he said.
The Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite spacecraft launched June 18 from Cape Canaveral as a secondary payload to NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is now circling about 31 miles above the moon to create detailed maps.
The spacecraft known as LCROSS remained attached to the upper Centaur stage of its United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket for nearly four months, separating about nine hours prior to impact.
The Centaur struck the crater at 5,600 mph with the mass of a large SUV, kicking up a curtain of soil and vapor.
Little could be seen of the impact live from spacecraft cameras, disappointing some observers and raising doubts about whether enough dirt was dislodged to answer questions about water.
The mission's goal was to identify the source of hydrogen concentrated at the lunar poles that was first detected by NASA's Lunar Prospector probe about 10 years ago.
But Colaprete said the rocket stage struck close to its target, and the dirt plume was in line with expectations even though it didn't rise high above the crater rim.
Information from two spacecraft spectrometers, which measure color wavelengths specific to different compounds, confirmed the water's presence.
Scientists said the findings led to intriguing questions about how the water got there. Possible sources include comets, solar wind, giant molecular clouds, rains of ice-laden dust, the moon's internal activity or even the Earth itself.
"It's painting a really surprising new picture of the moon," said Greg Delory, a senior fellow at the Space Sciences Laboratory and Center for Integrative Planetary Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. "Rather than a dead and unchanging world, it could in fact be a very dynamic and interesting one that could tell us unique things about the Earth-moon system and the early solar system conditions."