April 10, 2006

NASA plans probe to blast into moon in water hunt

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - NASA plans to send a
two-ton probe crashing into a crater on the moon in hopes of
discovering if it harbors water that could be used for manned
missions, the U.S. space agency said on Monday.

The $73 million probe, to be built by Northrop Grumman
Corp., is set to be launched in 2008 aboard a rocket also
carrying a sophisticated lunar mapper.

"We're going to learn a lot from this," said program
manager Dan Andrews of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett
Field, California. "It's going to give us a real definitive
understanding of what we have up there."

NASA astronauts visited the moon during the late 1960s and
early 1970s under the Apollo program but have not returned.

In the aftermath of the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster,
President Bush instructed NASA to retire the shuttle fleet in
2010 and return humans to the moon by 2020 and then aim for

First, though, NASA plans a series of robotic precursor
missions including the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing
Satellite, or LCROSS, which will plow into the crater, and the
mapper, called the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

When LCROSS strikes the crater, it is expected to create a
hole 16 feet deep and send up a 2.2 million-pound (998,000-kg)
plume of debris for sensors and cameras stationed on a second
spacecraft to monitor.

Dozens of ground-based telescopes, as well as possibly
space observatories, such as the Hubble telescope, will be
trained on the plume as well.

A monitoring satellite that is part of LCROSS, but separate
from the reconnaissance orbiter, will then fly through the
plume to collect and relay data back to Earth. It will have
just 15 minutes before it too crashes into the moon, sending up
a second, smaller plume for additional studies.

Two previous missions, the military's Clementine spacecraft
and NASA's Lunar Prospector, determined the moon's south pole
is particularly rich in hydrogen, which scientists suspect is
bound with oxygen to form water.

But there are other theories to explain the hydrogen
readings as well.

"What this mission buys us is an early attempt to get to
know what the resources are," said Scott Horowitz, head of
NASA's lunar exploration program. "We know for sure that for
human exploration to succeed we're going to have to eventually
live off the land."

Water ice could be used to make oxygen for astronauts to
breathe, as well as an oxidizer for rocket fuel.