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Lunar water “confirmed”

Nov. 13, 2009
Courtesy NASA
and World Science staff

Pre­lim­i­nar­y da­ta from NASA’s Lu­nar Crat­er Ob­serva­t­ion and Sens­ing Sat­el­lite shows the moon really does have wa­ter, sci­en­tists say.

The space­craft and a com­pan­ion rock­et stage made twin im­pacts in the Cabeus crat­er Oct. 9 that cre­at­ed a plume of ma­te­ri­al in­side the pit, which had­n’t seen sun­light in bil­lions of years. The plume trav­eled up and be­yond the crat­er rim and in­to sun­light, while an ad­di­tion­al cur­tain of de­bris was ejected more side­ways.

The gray puff in the sha­dow in the in­set im­age shows the plume about 20 sec­onds after im­pact. (Credit: NA­SA)


“We are ec­stat­ic,” said An­tho­ny Co­laprete, proj­ect sci­ent­ist and prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor at NASA’s Ames Re­search Cen­ter in Mof­fett Field, Ca­lif. “Mul­ti­ple lines of ev­i­dence show wa­ter was pre­sent” in both blasts of ma­te­ri­al. “The con­centra­t­ion and dis­tri­bu­tion of wa­ter and oth­er sub­stances re­quires fur­ther anal­y­sis, but it is safe to say Cabeus holds wa­ter.”

“We’re un­lock­ing the mys­ter­ies of our near­est neigh­bor and, by ex­ten­sion, the so­lar sys­tem,” said Mi­chael Wargo, chief lu­nar sci­ent­ist at NASA Head­quar­ters in Wash­ing­ton. 

Sci­en­tists long have spec­u­lat­ed about the source of sig­nif­i­cant amounts of hy­dro­gen, a com­po­nent of wa­ter, de­tected at the lu­nar poles. 

If the wa­ter is bil­lions of years old, these po­lar cold traps could hold a key to the his­to­ry and ev­o­lu­tion of the so­lar sys­tem, much as an ice co­re sam­ple tak­en on Earth re­veals an­cient da­ta, re­search­ers say. Wa­ter and oth­er com­pounds al­so rep­re­sent po­ten­tial re­sources to sus­tain fu­ture moon mis­sions.

Since the im­pacts, the mis­sion sci­en­tists have been an­a­lyz­ing the huge amount of da­ta the space­craft col­lect­ed. The team con­centrated on da­ta from the satel­lite’s spec­trom­e­ters, in­stru­ments that help iden­ti­fy the com­po­si­tion of ma­te­ri­als by ex­am­in­ing light they emit or ab­sorb.

Oth­er than wa­ter, “No oth­er rea­son­a­ble com­bina­t­ion of oth­er com­pounds that we tried matched the ob­serva­t­ions. The pos­si­bil­ity of con­tamina­t­ion from the Cen­taur al­so was ruled out,” Co­laprete said.

Da­ta from the oth­er in­stru­ments on the space­craft are be­ing an­a­lyzed for ad­di­tion­al clues about the state and dis­tri­bu­tion of the ma­te­ri­al at the im­pact site. “The full un­der­stand­ing… may take some time. The da­ta is that rich,” Co­laprete said. “A­long with the wa­ter in Cabeus, there are hints of oth­er in­tri­guing sub­stances. The pe­r­ma­nently shad­owed re­gions of the Moon are truly cold traps, col­lect­ing and pre­serv­ing ma­te­ri­al over bil­lions of years.” 

The Lu­nar Crat­er Ob­serva­t­ion and Sens­ing Sat­el­lite, or LCROSS, was launched June 18 from NASA’s Ken­ne­dy Space Cen­ter in Flor­i­da as a com­pan­ion mis­sion to the Lu­nar Re­con­nais­sance Or­biter. Mov­ing at more than 1.5 miles (2.4 km) per sec­ond, the spent uppe­r stage of its launch ve­hi­cle hit the lu­nar sur­face the morning of Oct. 9, cre­at­ing an im­pact that in­stru­ments aboard the craft ob­served for about four min­utes. The sat­el­lite it­self hit the sur­face five mi­nutes later.


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Preliminary data from NASA’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite shows the moon really does have water, scientists say. The spacecraft and a companion rocket stage made twin impacts in the Cabeus crater Oct. 9 that created a plume of material inside the pit, which hadn’t seen sunlight in billions of years. The plume traveled up and beyond the crater rim and into sunlight, while an additional curtain of debris was ejected more sideways. “We are ecstatic,” said Anthony Colaprete, project scientist and principal investigator at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. “Multiple lines of evidence show water was present” in both blasts of material. “The concentration and distribution of water and other substances requires further analysis, but it is safe to say Cabeus holds water.” “We’re unlocking the mysteries of our nearest neighbor and, by extension, the solar system,” said Michael Wargo, chief lunar scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Scientists long have speculated about the source of significant quantities of hydrogen, a component of water, detected at the lunar poles. If the water is billions of years old, these polar cold traps could hold a key to the history and evolution of the solar system, much as an ice core sample taken on Earth reveals ancient data, researchers say. Water and other compounds also represent potential resources to sustain future moon missions. Since the impacts, the mission scientists have been analyzing the huge amount of data the spacecraft collected. The team concentrated on data from the satellite’s spectrometers, instruments that help identify the composition of materials by examining light they emit or absorb. Other than water, “No other reasonable combination of other compounds that we tried matched the observations. The possibility of contamination from the Centaur also was ruled out,” Colaprete said. Data from the other instruments on the spacecraft are being analyzed for additional clues about the state and distribution of the material at the impact site. “The full understanding… may take some time. The data is that rich,” Colaprete said. “Along with the water in Cabeus, there are hints of other intriguing substances. The permanently shadowed regions of the Moon are truly cold traps, collecting and preserving material over billions of years.” The Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, was launched June 18 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida as a companion mission to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Moving at a speed of more than 1.5 miles per second, the spent upper stage of its launch vehicle hit the lunar surface shortly after 4:31 a.m. PDT Oct. 9, creating an impact that instruments aboard the craft observed for approximately four minutes. The satellite itself hit the surface at about 4:36 a.m.