Video: Moon 'really wet,' scientists say

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updated 10/21/2010 7:20:45 PM ET 2010-10-21T23:20:45

When NASA blasted a hole in the moon last year in search of water, scientists figured there would be a splash. They just didn't know how big.

Now new results from the Hollywoodesque moonshot reveal lots of water in a crater where the sun never shines — 41 gallons of ice and vapor.

That may not sound like much — it's what a typical washing machine uses for a load — but it's almost twice as much as researchers had initially measured and more than they ever expected to find.

The estimate represents only what scientists can see from the debris plume that was kicked up from the high-speed crash near the south pole by a NASA spacecraft on Oct. 9, 2009.

Mission chief scientist Anthony Colaprete of the NASA Ames Research Center calculates there could be 1 billion gallons of water in the crater that was hit — enough to fill 1,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

"Where we impacted was quite wet," Colaprete said, adding there could be more such craters at both the moon's poles.

Proof that the moon is dynamic and not a dry, desolate world offers hope for a possible future astronaut outpost where water on site could be used for drinking or making rocket fuel.

But the scientists' excitement is tempered by the political reality that there's no plan to land on the moon anytime soon.

The $79 million moon mission known as the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, was launched to determine whether water exists at the moon's poles. Previous spacecraft spied hints of possible ice in polar craters.

The mission involved slamming a spent rocket into Cabeus crater. The crash carved a hole about a quarter the size of a football field.

A trailing spacecraft then flew through the cloud of debris and dust thrown up by the impact and used its instruments to analyze what was inside before it also struck the moon.

Image: LCROSS impact
Science / AAAS
An image from NASA's LCROSS mission shows debris ejected from Cabeus crater and into the sunlight, about 20 seconds after impact. The inset shows a close-up with the direction of the sun and Earth indicated by arrows.

Besides water, the plume also contained carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, ammonia, sodium, mercury and silver. The findings were published in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

How the soup of compounds became trapped in Cabeus crater, among the coldest places in the solar system, is unclear. One theory is that they came from comets and asteroids, which pounded the lunar surface billions of years ago, and later drifted to the poles.

Mission scientist Kurt Retherford of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, thinks the discovery of mercury could pose a challenge for any human settlers because of its toxicity.

But Colaprete, the mission chief scientist, said there are ways around the mercury dilemma.

"Just like we use filters on Earth to make sure our drinking water is clean, we will do the same on the moon. We can distill or purify it," he said.

Apollo astronauts previously found traces of silver and gold in lunar samples facing the Earth. Specks of silver in the frigid polar crater are "not going to start the next 'silver rush' to the moon," said planetary geologist Peter Schultz of Brown University, who analyzed the plume.

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While scientists celebrated the copious data returned to Earth, the highly hyped mission last year was a public relations bomb. Scores of space fans who stayed up all night to glimpse NASA's promised debris plume through webcast or telescopes saw little more than a fuzzy white flash.

LCROSS was originally hatched as a robotic mission before a future human trip. That was before Congress approved a blueprint last month for NASA that shifts the focus from a manned moon landing — as outlined under President George W. Bush — in favor of sending astronauts to near-Earth asteroids and eventually Mars. A return to the moon could potentially be a way station — something still to be decided — but the moon won't be an overall goal.

Given the recent water find, "it's disappointing that we're not going to forge ahead" with a moon return next decade, said space scientist Greg Delory of the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in the project.

But he believes that "when the time is right, we're going to send people there again."

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Photos: Month in space: September 2010

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  1. Martian sea of sand

    Near Mars' north pole, the landscape is dominated by sand dunes forming a massive erg, or sand sea, much like parts of the Sahara Desert on Earth. In parts of the erg, sand is abundant and covers the entire surface. Here, near the edge, sand is in shorter supply and the dunes are separated by areas of lighter-toned soil. This color-coded image from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was captured in July and published on Sept. 1. (NASA /JPL/ University of Arizona) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Dance of the galaxies

    NGC 5426 and NGC 5427 are two spiral galaxies of similar sizes engaged in a dramatic dance. It is not certain that this interaction will end in a collision and ultimately a merging of the two galaxies, although the galaxies have already been affected. Together known as Arp 271, this dance will last for tens of millions of years. This image, released Aug. 30, was taken with the EFOSC instrument attached to the New Technology Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's La Silla facility in Chile. (ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Crazy cones on Mars

    These Martian volcanic cones are similar in size and shape to cones found in Iceland, where hot lava has run over wet ground. The heat from the lava boils the water, which bursts through the lava flow. These steam-driven exploding bubbles of lava throw chunks of molten and solid lava into the air. A long series of such explosions is needed to build up one of the large cones. This image, released Sept. 1, was taken by a high-resolution camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Creating Curiosity

    Engineers work on the Curiosity rover at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., on Sept. 16. Curiosity, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, is due to be launched to the Red Planet from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in late 2011. (Jae C. Hong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Igor the Terrible

    A photo taken from the International Space Station on Sept. 15 shows Hurricane Igor whirling through the Atlantic Ocean hundreds of miles below. In the foreground you can see a Russian spacecraft docked to the space station. (NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Dodging a bullet

    An extreme ultraviolet image from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory shows an exceptionally heavy plasma eruption on the surface of the sun on Sept. 8. Not to worry, though: The resulting blast of electrically charged particles missed Earth. (NASA/SDA via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Bull's-eye on the moon

    A color-coded topographic map based on data from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter shows the 580-mile-wide Mare Orientale, the largest young impact basin on the moon. This basin formed when a projectile hit the moon about 3.8 billion years ago and penetrated deeply into the lunar crust, ejecting huge amounts of material. The image was released Sept. 16 to coincide with the publication of scientific papers about LRO's mission. (NASA / Goddard / MIT / Brown) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Two flashes from Jupiter

    A fleeting bright dot on each of these images of Jupiter marks a small comet or asteroid burning up in the atmosphere. The image on the left was taken on June 3 by Australian amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley, with a fireball appearing on the right side. The image on the right was taken by Japanese amateur astronomer Masayuki Tachikawa on Aug. 20, with a fireball appearing at upper right. In a report published Sept. 9, NASA said neither event left a lasting mark on the planet. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Spiral in space

    A picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, published Sept. 7, shows an unusual spiral nebula around the star LL Pegasi, 3,000 light-years from Earth. Astronomers say the spiral shape was created by material swirling out from one of the stars in a binary-star system. (ESA / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Bootprint on Mars?

    Orcus Patera is an enigmatic elliptical depression near Mars' equator, in the eastern hemisphere of the planet. Located between the volcanoes of Elysium Mons and Olympus Mons, its formation remains a mystery. The favored theory is that the feature was created when a comet or asteroid hit the Red Planet at a shallow angle. This picture of Orcus Patera, released Aug. 27, was taken by the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter. (ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. NASA's six-legged robot

    The All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer, or ATHLETE, is a prototype heavy-lift utility vehicle designed to support future human exploration of extraterrestrial surfaces. ATHLETE got a chance to flex its limbs on Sept. 15 in northern Arizona during NASA's Desert RATS field tests. (Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Practicing for Mars

    Geologists Jacob Bleacher and Jim Rice take a close look at a rock formation in northern Arizona before collecting samples on Sept. 5. The geologists took part in NASA's Desert RATS exercise, which is aimed at trying out the equipment and procedures that could come into play during a mission to Mars or other interplanetary destinations. The "RATS" in the name stands for "Research and Technology Studies." (NASA Desert RATS) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Ice sculptures in space

    Clouds of gas and dust in the Carina Nebula are sculpted into bizarre shapes by stellar radiation, as seen in this image captured by the Hubble Space Telescope and unveiled on Sept. 16. The Hubble team compares the pillars to "cosmic ice sculptures." (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Project) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. New York at night

    New York City is ablaze in an image sent by NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock from the International Space Station on Aug. 28. "The City That Never Sleeps," he wrote in a Twitter tweet. "New York, New York on a clear summer night." (Doug Wheelock / NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Shooting a laser at the sky

    This image, released on Sept. 6, shows a laser beam shooting up from the European Southern Observatory’s Paranal Observatory in Chile. The laser beam is used as a guide for the observatory's adaptive-optics system, which compensates for unsteadiness in the atmosphere to produce sharper astronomical images. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Thar she blows!

    A solid rocket motor that could be used on future NASA launch vehicles is tested Aug. 31 at ATK Aerospace Systems' test site in Promontory, Utah. The rocket motor burned for just over two minutes during the successful static test, producing about 3.6 million pounds of thrust. (ATK) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. The road ahead

    NASA's Opportunity rover looks across a series of sand ripples and bedrock outcrops toward the rim of Endeavour Crater on the horizon on Sept. 6. Opportunity has just crossed the halfway mark in its trip from Victoria Crater to Endeavour. The rover headed out from Victoria in September 2008. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Saturn and its children

    Four of Saturn's moons join the planet for a well-balanced portrait, released by the Cassini orbiter's imaging team on Sept. 10. Saturn's largest moon, Titan, is at lower left. Tethys is at upper right. Two much smaller moons, Pandora and Epimetheus, are barely visible near the rings. (NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Moon and Earthglow

    A crescent moon is just about to set below Earth's glowing horizon in a picture taken Sept. 4 from the International Space Station. The glow is sunlight scattered by Earth's atmosphere. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Twilight of the shuttle

    Photographers gather early on the morning of Sept. 21 to take pictures of the space shuttle Discovery, just after its arrival at the launch pad. Discovery is scheduled to embark on the shuttle fleet's penultimate mission on Nov. 1. The final shuttle flight, involving Endeavour, is set for launch in February - although there's a chance that one additional mission will be flown. (Scott Audette / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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