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Saturday, 19 December 2009 12:14

NASA Discovery: Moon Holds Water

Written by  Joshua T. Gillion
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The Earth as Seen from the MoonScientists have long speculated about significant quantities of hydrogen detected in the polar regions of our moon. Where did it come from? Were the moon's poles once covered in ice, as are our own? If so, is any of that water still present? Recent NASA findings may have answered some of these questions, with instruments on three spacecraft detecting molecules of water near the lunar poles, and while the quantities are small, they are greater than predicted.

On June 18th NASA launched the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) as a companion mission to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Among other instruments, LCROSS was equipped with a spectrometer (dubbed ALICE) from Ocean Optics, a world leader in optical sensing technology, headquartered right here in Dunedin.

In the early morning of October 9th, the spent upper stage of the spacecraft's Centaur rocket hit the lunar surface, in the permanently shadowed Cabeus crater at the moon's south pole. The impact produced a plume of debris, which ALICE observed for several minutes before LCROSS also plummeted into the crater. Instruments aboard NASA's Cassini and EPOXI spacecraft helped confirm the LCROSS findings. On November 13th, NASA announced that ultraviolet measurements taken by ALICE confirmed near-infrared readings, indicating that as much The Cabeus Crateras 220 pounds of water had been found in the material excavated by the Centaur impact.

"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. "The moon harbors many secrets, and LCROSS has added a new layer to our understanding."

“We are ecstatic,” said Anthony Colaprete, LCROSS project scientist and principle investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center. “The concentration and distribution of water and other substances requires further analysis, but it is safe to say Cabeus holds water.” The investigation is far from over, however. “The full understanding of the LCROSS data 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 moon's water could have been formed or deposited billions of years ago, laying frozen and undisturbed at the lunar poles until now. If so, this lunar ice could hold keys to the history and evolution of the solar system, much like ice-core samples taken on earth reveal keys to our planet's history. The discovery of lunar water molecules in higher concentrations than expected also raises new questions about where the water came from and what processes allow the moon to retain this water over time. It has even been hypothesized that water and other compounds on the moon could provide vital resources for further exploration, with speculation running from lunar ice providing drinking water to hydrogen and oxygen molecules extracted from water on the moon being used as rocket fuel.

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