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Lunar crash will sample debris for water, minerals
San Francisco Chronicle


April 12, 2006
Wednesday AM

Space scientists plan to blast two fresh craters on the moon in a couple of years - one could kick up a cloud dozens of miles high - in an effort to learn from the dust and rubble whether water and valuable minerals might exist there to help astronauts "live off the land" in the far distant future when they return to the lunar surface and build bases.

Already pocked with thousands upon thousands of craters from asteroid impacts over billions of years, the moon's new artificial craters will be created by two "impactors" riding aboard a spacecraft called the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. NASA officials announced Monday it will be launched in 2008.




The spacecraft will fly in orbit over the moon's north and south poles, zooming in as close as 30 miles from the surface to photograph every square mile of the landscape and create detailed maps that will be essential for manned landings and bases there, said Scott Horowitz, NASA's exploration chief.

But it will also carry a separate two-part craft weighing nearly 1,200 pounds and dubbed the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), whose job will be to slam into the moon's south pole to make the new crater and then analyze the huge cloud of matter that is expected to rise 30 to 40 miles above the moon's surface, said Daniel Adams, leader of the Mountain View, Calif.-based Ames Research Center team that conceived the project.

Anthony Colaprete, the project's principal investigator and scientist at Ames, was excited at the prospect of learning just what the moon is made of at its poles.

Born July 16, 1969, the day Apollo 11 was launched, carrying astronauts to mankind's first manned lunar landing four days later, Colaprete is a true child of the space age. His father was an engineer who designed fuel tanks for the Apollo spacecraft, and now Colaprete is ready "for a new spacecraft to do fantastic, spectacular science," he said.

Instruments aboard two recent moon-orbiting missions - named Lunar Prospector and Clementine - have detected hints of hydrogen and possibly water ice deep within the permanently shadowed bottoms of craters near the moon's north and south poles, Colaprete said. "But we still don't know what form the hydrogen exists in, and we don't really know whether there's water at all," he said.

If there really is water, he said, astronauts aboard future spacecraft should be able to separate the hydrogen and oxygen into components for rocket fuel, provide oxygen for breathing, or use the water for drinking when the manned bases are built. There may be minerals and metals to mine, too. So "making a crater there is a fantastic way to learn about the moon's mineralogy," Colaprete said.

Assuming the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter reaches the moon as planned in October 2008, its path will carry it over the south pole, almost directly above a natural lunar crater named Shackleton, for the famed Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, who rescued his crew from almost certain death at the climax of a 1914 expedition that never reached Earth's South Pole.

From high above the crater the orbiter will send one portion of the LCROSS craft plunging into the depths of the Shackleton crater at 5,600 mph, where its impact will blast a new crater some 100 yards wide and 16 feet deep.

The other half of LCROSS, still orbiting overhead, will carry instruments and cameras to analyze the rising cloud of pulverized rock and dust. Then, after circling the moon twice, it will transmit all its data back to Earth, and finally it too will shoot down into the Shackleton crater to create another smaller impact, Colaprete said. Its rising debris will be minimal.

The Shackleton crater has often been mentioned as a possible site for a manned lunar base and a jumping-off place for manned missions to Mars - if ever President Bush's "Vision for Space Exploration" is finally realized.


E-mail David Perlman at dperlman(at)
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