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Small Crash on Moon Could Have Big Scientific Impact

October 9, 2009 at 6:21 PM EST
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Scientists hope crashing a probe into the moon will shed light on whether there is much water there.
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NASA MISSION CONTROL: We’re watching the remaining few seconds of the LCROSS mission, as we approach very rapidly the surface of the Cabeus crater.

MARGARET WARNER: As scientists at mission control watched a rocket careen toward the moon at nearly 6,000 miles an hour and hit, this is what they expected to see, a spectacular six-mile-high plume of lunar dust kicked up by the impact, big enough to be seen by telescopes on Earth.

But, when the rocket hit at 7:31 this morning, this is what the world saw: foggy images, with a fuzzy white mass.

NASA MISSION CONTROL: The shepherding spacecraft has hit the surface of the moon.

MARGARET WARNER: Still, NASA scientists hailed the mission at the press conference afterwards.

ANTHONY COLAPRETE, LCROSS principal investigator, NASA Ames: I can certainly report there was an impact. We saw that impact. We saw the crater.

MARGARET WARNER: Anthony Colaprete is the mission’s principal investigator.

ANTHONY COLAPRETE: We got good measurements, spectroscopic measurements, which is what we needed, of the — the impact event. So, we have the data we need to actually address the questions we set out to address.

MARGARET WARNER: The mission was designed to confirm, one way or the other, scientists’ long-held suspicion that there is frozen ice — maybe lots of it — in the dark poles of the moon. Ice could generate water and even oxygen, a boon for future missions to the moon and beyond, says former NASA-scientist-turned-space-reporter Keith Cowing.

KEITH COWING, NASA Watch: Now if there’s water on the moon, a lot of water, you could use it to make fuel, water to drink, and air to breathe. And every bit — it’s kind of like the old trains going through the West. They would stop somewhere. And if they had to carry everything with them, they would have no room for passengers.

And, if stuff is there, it makes it a lot easier and perhaps less expensive to send people to go to the moon and perhaps to stay there.

Skepticism over murky results

MARGARET WARNER: The images that came in this morning were taken by a second spacecraft that separated from the rocket shortly before it crashed. Loaded with cameras and other equipment, the spacecraft flew through the debris cloud, recording images and data, and transmitted them to Earth, before crashing itself.

NASA scientists insisted this morning they got streams of data. But some reporters were skeptical.

JOHN JOHNSON JR., The Los Angeles Times: One of the things that the public was out there to see today and that we were expecting to see was a debris cloud. And we saw nothing. How do you know this is a success and that it didn't just head bedrock and nothing came up?

ANTHONY COLAPRETE: Well, we need to go back and look at the data and see what it says. Exploration has its surprises in it. We need to go and carefully look at the images, you know, see what's in them. Certainly, what's streamed out to the video is not at the same fidelity as what we get fresh off the spacecraft.

So, we just need to look a little bit more closely before we conclude anything.

MARGARET WARNER: Cowing says the fact that there was no visible plume is no big deal.

NASA remains hopeful

KEITH COWING: A big flash is good for folks back on Earth. And maybe there was a little too much hype about on the computer animation part, but -- by NASA -- but a less -- a more dim plume could represent regular regolith, or powder lunar soil, which is where you really want see -- look for the ice, and that that may be what was thrown up.

And you will actually only see it with telescopes. Like, the Hubble was looking at it and so forth. That data is coming back to Earth right now. So, there may be a big plume. It just may have been in wavelengths that our eyes would not normally see.

MARGARET WARNER: Will today's mission tell us definitively whether or not there's water on the moon?

KEITH COWING: It could come really darn close to doing that, yes.

MARGARET WARNER: NASA scientists were a little more cautious, but clearly expectant.

ANTHONY COLAPRETE: We have just got to sit back and be -- be careful. We don't want to -- again, it's -- we're -- life is full of surprises. We want to be careful, not make a false negative or a false positive claim.

MARGARET WARNER: NASA expects to have preliminary news of what it found within a few days.

JIM LEHRER: There's more on the moon mission on our Web site, NewsHour.PBS.org. Margaret's full interview with Keith Cowing, the editor of NASAWatch.com, is there, as is a lesson plan about the search for water in outer space.