What to make of water on the moon

Earth’s moon is now known to have significant amounts of water, according to NASA, who announced their findings from a press conference at the Ames Research Center on Friday, November 13, 2009.

Scientists spent a month pouring over data from the impact of LCROSS, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite. LCROSS is a two-part spacecraft whose first part struck the moon and second part trailed behind and measured the light that filtered through the debris from the first impact. The light that shone through the flying lunar dirt carried the chemical fingerprint of water at the impact site, called the Cabeus crater at the moon’s south pole.

“I’m impressed with the amount of water that we saw in the 20-meter crater,” said LCROSS Principal Investigator Anthony Colaprete at the press conference, referring to the smaller impact crater created. NASA estimates that about 26 gallons of water were sent flying into the air from impact.

Scientists suspected massive amounts of water at the lunar poles based on findings in 1998 of NASA’s Lunar Prospector. It confirmed concentrations of hydrogen at the lunar poles, which suggested that they could contain as much as 26 billion gallons of water ice. But confirmation of water required the spectroscopic analysis done by the LCROSS mission.

In an interview with EarthSky, Dr. Colaprete spoke of the significance of the LCROSS mission to future space missions. The first, said Colaprete, is the compelling science to be studied.

“The moon is a time capsule, a fossilized time capsule or imprint of Earth, how Earth was 3.8 billion years ago, or so. And by being able to understand the nature of this hydrogen, we’re actually looking into the past of the entire inner solar system,” Colaprete told EarthSky.

The discovery of lunar water could help astronauts better explore the moon and beyond. “Water’s an incredibly important resource. And if we want to go to places for extended periods, like the moon, or even to Mars, we want to be able to take advantage of resources that are available there,” said Colaprete. That water could be used, he said, to manufacture rocket fuel on site at the moon.

The lunar water discovery raises new questions on future space exploration by humans. Colaprete added, “Do we need to go back with a rover? Do we need to go back with another lander? Do we need to do sample return? LCROSS will give a strategic direction as to how to further explore the poles of the moon.”

NASA’s announcement of water on the moon comes on the heels of the Augustine Report from the Review of US Human Spaceflight Plans committee, which looked at the future of key elements of America’s space plans: the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station, and the next-generation of spacecraft to send humans to low-Earth orbit and beyond. What’s at stake is whether the U.S. should bypass the moon in its goal to send humans to Mars, or whether its worth the expense of colonizing the moon as a staging area to eventually reach Mars. The water discovery could tip the scales towards U.S. resources devoted to further exploration of our moon.

November 14, 2009

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Jorge Salazar

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