Declaring "This is not your father's moon," NASA scientists said Friday that last month's mission to punch a hole in the lunar surface found significant amounts of water in a permanently shadowed crater at the moon's south pole.
"The moon is alive," declared Anthony Colaprete, chief scientist for the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite mission, or LCROSS.
According to Colaprete and other researchers, the mission measured about 25 gallons of water in the form of vapor and ice after punching a hole about 100 feet across. It could be evidence there is enough water at the poles for future astronauts to use to live off the land. And it's far more than anyone expected after the Apollo missions of the 1960s and '70s, which dubbed the moon a dead, forbidding world.
The $79 million lunar mission was launched in June to try to uncover the source of large quantities of hydrogen detected by other spacecraft in craters at the poles. If there was water, scientists reasoned, it would be in these craters that haven't seen sunlight in billions of years.
The question now is, where did it come from? Possible sources include comets and asteroids, which are considered a likely source of the water on Earth. It's also possible the hydrogen was delivered by the solar wind to the lunar surface, where it is converted to water and travels to the shadowed craters.
The scientists hinted that other surprises might be coming in the next few months, as they continue studying the data from the mission. "The full understanding of the LCROSS data may take some time. The data is that rich," Colaprete said.
The LCROSS mission was assisted by data from the Maryland-built Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which was launched aboard the same rocket in June and continues to circle the moon.
LRO, built at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, gathered final terrain and targeting data for the LCROSS impacts. It also flew over the site after impact to measure crater temperatures and identify gases in the impact plume.
This new picture of the moon comes as the Obama administration is reconsidering the future of the human spaceflight program. The Vision for Space Exploration announced by the Bush administration in 2004 called for a return to the moon by 2020 and the eventual colonization of Mars.
But the Augustine Commission, appointed by the president to review those plans, reported just weeks ago that NASA will not get back to the moon any time soon unless it gets a lot more money, at least $3 billion a year. The commission also questioned whether the moon is a worthy goal, noting the "been there, done that" factor.
These finds could be game-changing, because they raise the prospect that a lunar colony could be all but self-sustaining.
The Baltimore Sun and Bloomberg News contributed to this article.