November 13, 2009

LCROSS Confirms Water on the Moon

The recent climax of NASA's LCROSS (Luner Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) mission resulted in giant impacts on the Moon. Although they had caused public outrage due to the media's use of the word "bomb" to describe the impacts, the mission's results are now showing the presence of water on the Moon. This finding confirms and presents a new face to the one made earlier from the data gathered by ISRO's Chandrayaan-1 mission.

The impacts created by LCROSS knocked up dust into space from the bottom of the Cabeus crater, dust that had not been exposed to sunlight for many billions of years. Despite the disappointment from the lack  of a spectacular view of the impact as seen from the EArth, the mission has been a huge success. The spacecraft collected a large amount of data from the initial impact using its onboard spectrometers, which analyzed the light emitted or absorbed by the ejected materials. The impact spectra matched up with the near-infrared spectral signature of water. Additionally, in the ultraviolet spectrum, further confirmation of the presence of water came from the spectral signature of hydroxyl, a product from the breaking up of water by sunlight.

And the water found from the impacts is no small amount. The 60 to 100 feet wide hole dug out by the impact is believed is believed to have contained over 26 gallons of water. Yet water is not believed to be the only interesting molecule found. Current analysis suggests other substances on the Moon, like carbon-based molecules, but the work to confirm this has not yet been completed.

The discovery does not simply add to our understanding of the Moon; it also tells us about the origins and the evolution of the solar system as well. The water, billions of years old, may reveal data about the past and present composition of the solar system, and that water may be very widespread. Plus, future manned lunar exploration may depend on these sources of water.

Update: Google has a Google Doodle to mark this finding of water on the Moon. If only the real LCROSS impacts were this spectacular...

Image: Google

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