Is There Water On The Moon

November 14, 2009 by  

Ancient astronomers believed the moon was so filled with water that they named the dark regions mare, the Latin word for sea.

It turns out those astronomers weren’t completely off the mark.

On Friday, NASA officials said preliminary results show a space probe that smashed into the lunar surface a month ago found a “significant amount” of water near the moon’s south pole.

Scientists detected the equivalent of 25 gallons of water, in the form of vapor and ice, hidden inside a shadowy crater.

The discovery changes scientists’ understanding of the moon and leads to a host of new questions: How much water is on the moon? How did it get there? Could astronauts use it as a drinking source or to manufacture rocket fuel?

Those questions could take scientists months, if not years, to answer. Some may be impossible to solve without a robotic mission to the pole.

Until then, experts do know one thing: “This is not your father’s moon,” said Greg Delory, a senior fellow at the University of California-Berkeley and a member of the science team for the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS.

Arizona has its own ties to the $79 million mission. Three observatories in southern Arizona captured data of the impact, which were turned over to NASA for analysis, and the MMT Observatory south of Tucson is part of the science team analyzing the findings.

The discovery comes as the moon has fallen out of favor again. In 2004, then-President George W. Bush announced a goal of returning humans to the moon by 2020. A NASA space panel commissioned by President Barack Obama concluded last month that the goal was impossible under current budgets. The panel instead recommended sending astronauts to asteroids or Martian moons.

Proponents of a moon sequel say it makes sense to train astronauts on the Earth’s only natural satellite first before sending them farther into space. The LCROSS mission is designed to be a stepping stone for that.

LCROSS crashed into the moon on Oct. 9, marking the first time a spacecraft has been sent to the polar region. The Apollo missions in the 1960s were near the equator.

LCROSS consisted of a “impactor” the size of a school bus that hit the moon and kicked up a plume of dust and debris. A spacecraft the size of a Volkswagen Beetle followed a few minutes later, flying through the debris and recording and transmitting data before smashing into the moon as well.

NASA had said the plume might be seen from Earth by amateur astronomers with 10-inch telescopes.

The actual impact was visible only to observatories with higher-powered telescopes.

Despite the lack of spectacular visuals, scientists say the LCROSS impact produced the data they needed.

In coming weeks, they hope to determine the exact concentration of water on the moon.

It’s safe to say the water wasn’t a frozen pond. The vapors and ice likely were mixed with grains of lunar soil, although that has yet to be determined, said Anthony Colaprete, lead scientist.

NASA’s definition of a “significant amount” of water probably differs sharply from the non-scientist’s definition.

The water places the moon at least on a par with the Earth’s Atacama Desert in Chile. The 600-mile stretch of land has been described as the driest desert in the world, getting virtually no rain.

Even if you can’t swim on the moon, the water could be a valuable resource for manned missions.

The big question is whether there is enough for astronauts to live off the land, which is what scientists will look at next.

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