NASA mission discovers watery surprise on moon

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — The moon is a wet place, NASA scientists announced Friday at a Mountain View, Calif., press conference, unveiling their long-awaited analysis of a mile-high plume of debris kicked up by the impact of the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite.

“We saw real crystalline ice and lots of water vapor, as well as other species,” such as sodium and perhaps even carbon dioxide, methane, ethanol and sodium dioxide, said Anthony Colaprete, the principal investigator for NASA’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite.

“It’s been a ‘Holy Cow!’ moment every single day since the impact,” as NASA’s analysis of the debris plume continues, he said.

Scientists say the discovery of ice and water vapor transforms our perception of this celestial neighbor, long thought to be a dry and barren place. By studying its characteristics, they say they’ll learn more about the history of the orb and adjacent solar system. The water could also support human exploration there.

The mission, known as Lcross (pronounced L-cross), provides confirmation. It slammed into a crater a month ago, excavating a 60-to-100-feet wide hole and kicking up at least 24 gallons of water into an elegant plume.

The satellite, built at Northrop Grumman’s facility in Redondo Beach, Calif., and launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, was built to search for water. It is one of the first missions in NASA’s plan to return humans to the moon and begin establishing a lunar outpost by 2020.

Its impact on Oct. 9 seemed to be a dud. When it slammed into the moon, there was no obvious sign of water.

But last week, a team of scientists gathered in NASA’s gray low-slung building N-240 to analyze the data collected by spectrometers, cameras that analyze the characteristics of the ejected components. The wavelengths — just bumps and wiggles on a computer screen — matched the profile of an oxygen-hydrogen molecule, or water.

While not as soggy as, say, Portland, “it’s wetter than some deserts on Earth,” said Colaprete.

If the water, which seems to be mixed in with dust and other chemicals, is not too contaminated by toxic chemicals, it could be drinkable, scientists say.

“We have all this new data to work through to learn what the moon is telling us,” said team member Gregory Delory, senior fellow of the Space Sciences Institute at University of California-Berkeley.

The next step, he said, is to learn where it came from and how plentiful it is. Also: What are all those other chemicals?

“This is not your father’s moon,” said Michael Wargo, chief lunar scientist for Exploration Systems at NASA Headquarters in Washington D.C. “This is not a dead planetary body, but one with a lot of dynamism in it.”


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