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NASA bombs moon's surface in search of water

By Jean-Louis Santini
Sat Oct 10 05:54:26 EST 2009
Fri Oct 9 18:54:26 UTC 2009

WASHINGTON, Oct 9 AFP - NASA has blasted the surface of the moon with two spacecraft in a dramatic bid to find water on the lunar surface, an experiment that could be a stepping stone to a permanent moon base.

At 1131 GMT (2231 AEDT) on Friday the agency hurtled a rocket into the moon's Cabeus crater, near the southern pole, at around 9,000km/h, followed four minutes later by a shepherding spacecraft equipped with cameras to record the impact.

The space agency said the blasts successfully kicked up a plume of lunar dirt that was captured by sensitive devices on board the trailing LCROSS craft.

"Everything really worked very well, the spacecraft flew perfect, the instruments performed better than expected in some cases. We got interesting results," a NASA statement said.

The agency will now set about the tricky task on sifting and analysing the 350 tonnes of dirt thrown up by the impact.

Cameras mounted on the 891kg shepherding spacecraft failed to beam live footage of the initial impact as the craft flew through the debris plume, but NASA said the experiment went well despite the hitch.

During the experiment, grainy thermal images carried on the US space agency's television station showed colder blue sites and warmer red sites on the moon's surface.

"The LCROSS science team is making their preliminary assessment of approximately four minutes of data collected from the LCROSS Spacecraft. Observatories involved in the LCROSS Observation Campaign are reporting in," the mission website said after the impact.

"We don't anticipate anything about presence or absence of water immediately. It's going to take us some time," cautioned Anthony Colaprete, project scientist and principal investigator for the $US79 million ($A87.19 million) LCROSS mission, which is also a preparatory mission for the Constellation program, which aims to send Americans back to the moon by 2020.

Colaprete said it will take several days for analysts to evaluate the data and several weeks to determine whether and how much hydrogen-bearing compounds were found.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden congratulated the team. "A special thanks to the NASA team led by Daniel Andrew, they have done a fantastic job with a low cost spacecraft that did a remarkable job," he said.

The LCROSS was launched in June aboard the Atlas V orbiter with another probe -- the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is tasked with producing a detailed map of the moon.

Ahead of Friday's impact, Victoria Friedensen, LCROSS program executive, said she was feeling "a lot of exhilaration, a little sadness".

"I never thought I'd work on something as interesting," she told NASA television.

Scientists hope the desolate lunar pole will prove a fertile hunting ground for evidence of water.

"We're hunting for how water ice was stored and trapped in these permanently shadowed areas over billions of years and we want to find out how much there is," explained Peter Schultz, a professor of geological sciences at Brown University, who helped design the mission.

The mission comes just two weeks after India hailed the discovery of water on the moon with its Chandrayaan-1 satellite mission in partnership with NASA.

Scientists had previously theorised that, except for the possibility of ice at the bottom of craters, the moon was totally dry.

Finding water on Earth's natural satellite would be a major breakthrough in space exploration and pave the way toward future lunar bases for drinking water or fuel, or even man living on another planet.

"This could be the place that we could go to mine water for a permanent lunar base," said Schultz.

"It tells us something about how water was delivered to the moon and other planets in a sort of cosmic rain, meaning impacts from comets over eons."

"If we had it there, we could actually make exploration be a bit more sustainable," NASA's Friedensen said. "We could make fuel on the moon."

But much uncertainty surrounds NASA's future missions to the moon, as a key review panel appointed by President Barack Obama's administration says existing budgets bar a return to it before 2020.

The last manned mission to the moon, Apollo 17, took place in 1972.