"We're going to learn a lot from this," said
program manager Dan Andrews of NASA's Ames Research Center
in Moffett Field, Calif. "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
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 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.