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The Moon's north pole (lower right). Credit: Galileo Mission/NASA/JPL

Reconnoitering the Moon
Jun 19, 2009

New lunar missions will look for water and study the Moon's composition.

The Moon is about to be thumped. On June 18, 2009 NASA launched the LRO/LCROSS mission to look for water on the Moon. Accomplishing the task required that three separate components launch together: a Shepherding Spacecraft, a Centaur rocket, and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). 

The LRO is designed to orbit the Moon for a year, looking for possible future landing sites and analyzing the lunar environment with a number of instruments, including a high-resolution digital imager. Since LRO will be in a polar orbit only 50 kilometers high, it is hoped that water might be found in the deep craters located near both poles.

LRO separated from the other two spacecraft approximately one hour after launch, with a scheduled lunar orbital insertion on June 22, 2009. The remaining two vehicles comprise the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), which will arrive at the Moon much later. The LCROSS Centaur rocket will first be guided several times around the Earth so that it can pick up speed.

Each 38 day orbit, as they swing past at a 90 degree attitude to the Earth/Moon system, Earth will impart a gravitational acceleration to LCROSS until it reaches a velocity greater than the bullet from a hunting rifle. The Shepherding Spacecraft will then separate from the rocket, following it to its planned intersection with the Moon. The Centaur will impact the Moon, where it is expected to blast out subsurface compounds that NASA scientists hope will contain water ice.

On January 25, 1994, NASA launched the Deep Space Program Science Experiment satellite, also known as Clementine. Its primary mission objective was to map the Moon in visible and ultraviolet light, so that the various minerals that make up the lunar regolith could be identified. After the data was analyzed, scientists announced that the south pole of the Moon contained pockets of water ice shielded from the Sun by shadows cast from the walls of deep craters. 

The information sparked a renewed interest in lunar colonization because the water ice could be a source of hydrogen, making it available for fuel and other uses by potential human explorers. Water can be split into oxygen and hydrogen with electricity, so solar panels could be transported to the Moon and used to create breathable air and drinkable water, along with fuel for the return journey.


At the time, some researchers questioned the accuracy of Clementine’s observations, or at least their interpretation. They suggested that the instruments may have seen reflections off the steep sidewalls of the craters and not ice deposits. Since the radar signature came from both brightly illuminated and darkly shaded areas of Shackleton crater, specifically, the reflection probably came from rocks and other debris rather than ice.


The LCROSS Centaur has been aimed to hit the Moon near the north pole in this case, with its Shepherding Satellite close behind. The Shepherding Satellite will fly the same trajectory as the Centaur rocket, analyzing the explosion's debris plume while plummeting toward the surface. After four minutes, the satellite will also hit the Moon, raising its own plume of material. The LRO will make several passes over the impact region, looking for the signature of volatile compounds escaping from the craters left behind by its two companions.


The Japanese spacecraft Kaguya, whose two year mission recently ended, found that the south pole craters contain no ice after all. On September 14, 2007, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced that the floor of Shackleton crater was –183° Celsius, but that Kaguya's onboard Terrain Camera, with a 10 meter resolution, showed no bright, highly reflective patches.


The researchers noted that the small excess of hydrogen ions recorded by instruments on previous missions was most likely implanted in the regolith by the solar wind. It is hoped that LRO/LCROSS will help to settle the issue.


As we have written in past Picture of the Day articles, the search for water on the Moon will most likely fail. The Moon was not formed by innumerable strikes from high-velocity space rocks or thousands of comets out of a hypothetical Oort Cloud. No water was brought to the Moon by millions of cometary ice balls. The morphology of the Moon shows the signs of electric discharge machining as we have argued many times. No water-bearing impactors formed the terrain there. Rather, it was electricity that carved the Moon, and any water that might have once existed there was dispersed into space by the energy released in the events.


Stephen Smith



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