Search for Moon Water is One Small Step in Space Exploration
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NASA’s LCROSS mission may have disappointed some with the absence of its promised fireworks, but the groundbreaking effort still promises to shed new light on lunar science.Scientists have believed since the days of the Apollo landings in the 1960s that the moon was completely dry. Samples coming back from those missions showed evidence of water, but scientists didn’t believe this finding and ignored it, writing the water off as contamination. Then, recent discoveries made by Indian probe Chandrayaan-1 detected water’s chemical signal, forcing scientists to now take the notion of moon water more seriously.
LCROSS, standing for Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite, was sent up on an Atlas V rocket along with the LRO, or Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, in June. Its purpose would be to answer the longstanding question of water’s existence on the Moon. After leaving the LRO behind to settle into lunar orbit, LCROSS slung shot around the moon. It proceeded to circle the earth twice, attaining the ideal velocity and angle for the experiment’s final phase.
On Friday, October 9th at 7:30am, this experiment tailor-made for action movie fans was finally put into action. As LCROSS approached the moon, the rocket carrying it detached and headed straight for the crater Cabeus Proper near the moon’s South Pole. As Professor Susan Heilman at the Boston Museum of Science said, “If water’s going to be anywhere, its going to be somewhere deep, dark, and cold that never gets sunlight.” Cabeus Proper is in a permanent shadow with constant temperatures of -328 degrees, making it the perfect target.
The plan called for the more-than-two-ton rocket to hit the crater at a velocity of 5,592 mp/h, twice the speed of a bullet and more than seven times the speed of sound. One does not need to be taking AP Physics to see this would make a big boom. NASA boasted to the media that a 6.2 mile tall ejecta cloud would result, visible from earth with a 10-inch telescope. The LCROSS module would fly through it, taking measurements for minutes before hitting the moon itself, adding to the plume. Afterwards, the LRO, the Hubble telescope, and dozens of observatories on earth would take measurements to analyze the event from every angle.
Unfortunately for pyrotechnics enthusiasts worldwide, videos of the experiment show absolutely nothing- no flash; no ejecta cloud; no evidence of impact whatsoever. This proved a disappointment to many expecting a free fireworks display. One attendee of an impact-viewing event summed it up: “Well, that was anti-climactic.”
But does that mean the mission was a failure? Were our hard-earned tax dollars wasted on a lunar fantasy? Not necessarily. When asked how much this project cost, a high-ranking team member quickly answered, “$79 million—less than it cost to make Wolverine.” And you can be sure that humanity has more to benefit from this experiment than any “X-Men” flick.
One must remember that finding water was LCROSS’s purpose, not giving us the Fourth of July in October. Water only exists on the lunar surface bonded to the dirt under the outer surface, not as free ice. Any ice on the surface would be quickly vaporized by intense solar radiation. Similarly, any kicked up from the explosion would be gone before our eyes could see it, its chemical signal only visible with infrared cameras.
Using devices called spectrometers, scientists captured footage of the impact at frequencies of light humans cannot see. These cameras were able to detect the impact, proving something happened—we just don’t know what yet. It will take time to analyze the data to find out what the cameras captured, and if water was present or not.
As NASA’s Web page says, finding water “could have far reaching implications as humans expand exploration past low-earth orbit.” For example, it costs $10,000 to bring one pound of cargo into space. That’s $44,000 a day, assuming the astronaut drinks just two liters. If astronauts were able to get water from the moon, it would save NASA and the taxpayers thousands of dollars. Water could have uses beyond drinking. The simple process of running electricity through the water would give astronauts oxygen for breathing and hydrogen for power (think hydrogen fuel cells). All of this would make putting man back on the moon much easier.
If finding water would lead to a moon base, what would a moon base then lead to? According to DHS physics teacher Mr. George Marrash, it would be, “a natural stepping stone” towards exploration of our solar system because, “we need somewhere to launch.” The moon’s gravitational field is much weaker than the earth’s, meaning it would take less energy and fuel to launch from the lunar surface. Water is also the raw material needed for a launch, as rocket fuel is little more than liquid hydrogen and liquid nitrogen. While the technology isn’t all here yet, being able to launch from the moon would be a tremendous advantage.
Our government already has its sights on putting humans where they have never been before. President Obama has a panel of experts researching the possibility of a Mars mission. NASA has a program called Constellation with the long-term goal of moon and Mars missions. Its current target is to send Americans to the International Space Station by 2014 in a newly designed rocket, but finding water could persuade the agency to drop all involvement with the ISS and focus its attention on the moon and beyond.
Not to say finding water would get someone on the moon next week. There are many other problems we will have to solve before we can make our return. After a long conversation about the dangers of powerful radiation in space, ultra-fine moon dust that has an almost magnetic attraction to all earthly materials, and the difficulties of getting water out of unimaginably cold and dark craters, Dr David Mestre, Science-Education Director at the Discovery Museum in Bridgeport said. “and then there are the micrometeorites.” This is why finding moon water is a small step towards return. But it is an important step that could lead to big things.
Over the next month or so, scientists will be analyzing the massive amounts of data collected after LCROSS’s impact to find out what exactly got kicked up by those two multi-million dollar projectiles. It may be water, or maybe not-we’ll have to wait and see. We might be dealt a wildcard, learning something we never expected. But as Tech Ed teacher Mr. Richard Reynolds said, “regardless of the finding, it is an important study because we’re bound to learn something.”
But it may be awhile before concrete information surfaces. “Whenever we do basic research, there’s never an immediate benefit. That usually comes five to 10 years later,” Mr. Marrash said,
NASA defense satellites eventually brought us cell phones, GPS and dish TV. The same principle applies to the LCROSS mission. Maybe someday, someone going to high school will drink water mined on the moon, a pioneer of a colony pushing the limits of human exploration, discovering things we never imagined. At this point anything is possible, but when LCROSS’s findings come, we will have a better idea of how high to set our sights, and whether or not they will be directed towards the moon.
A special thanks to Dr David Mestre of the Discovery Museum and Planetarium and Professor Susan Heilman of the Boston Museum of Science for providing a bounty of information that helped make this article possible.