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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Water on the Moon

One giant splash for mankind?

In October, the LCROSS (Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite) was intentionally crashed into the moon . NASA chose to slam the satellite and the spent rocket stage carrying it into the perpetual shade of Cabeus cater, near the moon’s south pole. Scientists hoped to learn more about the surface of the moon from studying the impact. In particular, they hoped to find out whether water was present in the crater’s shadow.

Prior to this experiment, water had been found in the silty surface, or regolith, which covers the moon. To be clear, this water does not form pools on the surface of the moon. Rather, the molecules of water are dispersed among the molecules of rock and dust. Water would have to be mined rather than simply collected. One estimate by Roger Clark, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist, is that you could get about 32 ounces of water from a ton of lunar soil.

If small amounts of water was mixed throughout the surface of the moon, could there be larger amounts deep in the shadows of the moon’s craters? The answer turned out to be yes.

The LCROSS did its job superbly, yielding fast amounts of data that are still being analyzed. We do know that water is definitely present in the lunar crater. Ultraviolet/visible spectrometers showed the presence of water in the ejecta created by the impact. According to Anthony Colaprete, LCROSS project scientist and principal investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center, a ‘significant’ amount of water was found.

When (optimistically, I’m not adding ‘and if’) we return to the moon, astronauts may be able to establish a permanent base subsisting on the water that is already present on the lunar surface.