August 11, 2008: There are places on the Moon where the sun hasn’t shined for millions of years. Dark polar craters too deep for sunlight to penetrate are luna incognita, the realm of the unknown, and in their inky depths, researchers believe, may lie a treasure of great value.
NASA is about to light one up.
Sometime between May and August 2009, depending on launch dates, the booster stage for NASA’s LCROSS probe will deliberately crash into a permanently-shadowed lunar crater at 9,000 km/hr, producing an explosion equivalent to about 2,000 pounds of TNT (6.5 billion joules). The blast will jettison material out of the crater into broad daylight where astronomers can search the debris for signs of lunar water.
Water is the treasure. NASA plans to send people back to the Moon by 2020 and eventually set up a lunar outpost. Water would be an invaluable resource for astronauts living and working on the Moon. Not only could people drink it, but water could be used to grow plants for food, or it could be split into hydrogen for rocket fuel and oxygen to replenish the outpost’s air. It even could shield astronauts from dangerous space radiation.
Hence the kamikaze mission, called the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), to search for H2O on the Moon. “If LCROSS’s booster stage hits a patch of lunar regolith that contains at least 0.5 percent water ice, water should be detectable in the plume of ejecta,” explains Anthony Colaprete, principal investigator for LCROSS at NASA’s Ames Research Center.