On Friday, NASA’s LCROSS Moon mission ended with the probe taking a nose dive onto the Lunar surface. This was all planned and was a great way to see what lay underneath the surface at the Moon’s intriguing South Pole. LCROSS was impacting inside a crater that is perpetually in shadow. Such conditions could allow water ice to remain in tact from many, many millennia ago and such a collision could throw up a plume of material that NASA can analyse and detect. In short, if there is water still inside the crater, this is a good way to find out.
As the time of impact approached on Friday, the web began buzzing with tales of how NASA was going to ‘bomb the moon’ – I even ended up arguing on Twitter about it with a random user. It seems that LCROSS’ end-of-days finale was too much for some to take – with much criticism of ‘littering’ and ‘polluting’ the Moon going on. This all despite the fact that, as Stuart Lowe and Chris North point out, this sort of thing happens to the Moon all the time – albeit with rock and not space probes.
As it happens, the spectacular plume was not visible from Earth as was hoped – disappointingly nor was it terribly visible from the NASA live feed. This led some to say the mission has failed but again this is another case of science being misunderstood. A small plume was seen, even if it wasn’t as big and bright as hoped – and NASa got lots of data. No doubt they will reveal before too long what they have – or have not – uncovered.
They have quick post up showing that a plume was at least ‘just’ visible – the optical image is shown above – and I await further results from the LCROSS team in the coming weeks.
More importantly though – if they do find evidence of water hidden under the Moon’s South Pole – why is this important? Well if we want to send people back to the Moon and then beyond into the Solar System we need to start thinking about actually going and living on the Moon. We need bases in space – and the Moon is a good place – or space travel will just be too expensive. Water is heavy and carting it about with us around the Solar System will be difficult. If we have a supply of it on the Moon that we can mine then we need to know where it is and thus where to start thinking about putting our first base.
If there is water to be found on the Moon then it becomes even more interesting and relevant to mankind’s space travel agenda and to its science agenda in the coming decades. Well done to the LCROSS team for a successful smash-down!