Cheap and Wonderful: Finding Water on the Moon

We recently found out that the Moon, or part of it anyway, has twice as much water on its surface as the Sahara desert. Obviously, thats still not a lot, but it is at the same time a pretty incredible finding. This is the quick, and very impressive story of how some extra payload capacity and efficient operation lead to one of the most memorable space missions of recent years:

NASA's Explosive Findings on the Moon

The Brilliant Idea: Sending a spacecraft made from off-the-shelf parts careening into the moon at 2.5 kilometers per second to find water ice.

By Logan Ward and the Editors of Popular Mechanics
October 4, 2010 6:30 AM
(Illustration by Michael Tschernjajew)
1. Shepherding Spacecraft
Rather than commission expensive new devices for the shepherding spacecraft, the team beefed up non-aerospace technology, including near-infrared spectrometers designed for carpet recycling and Nascar engine-block thermal-imaging equipment.
2. Centaur
The Atlas V’s empty upper fuel stage, called Centaur, smashed into the permanently dark Cabeus Crater on Oct. 9, 2009, blasting a swimming-pool-size hole and ejecting a 6-mile-high plume of vapor and dust that had not seen sunlight for more than a billion years.
3. Moon Dust
LRO spacecraft analyzed the ejecta, as did Hubble and Earth-based telescopes. Before crashing into the moon itself, LCROSS’s shepherding spacecraft relayed the most intriguing data: evidence of water ice, which may have been deposited by the impact of an ancient comet.

Innovators: Daniel Andrews, Anthony Colaprete, NASA’s Ames Research Center; Stephen Carman, Craig Elder, Northrop Grumman

It’s hard to decide what’s more impressive: the confirmation of water ice on the moon, or the scrappy way that a team of scientists and engineers pulled off the mission—by slamming 2 tons of equipment otherwise destined to become space junk into the moon’s south pole and then analyzing the dust plume it kicked up.

Yet the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, mission began as an afterthought. When the leaders of NASA’s $491 million Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) found themselves with an extra 1000 kilograms of payload capacity, they sent out a call for shoestring proposals for a companion mission. Led by principal investigator Anthony Colaprete, a team from NASA’s Ames Research Center proposed using the Atlas V launch rocket’s empty upper fuel stage to impact the moon. Northrop Grumman would turn the rocket’s hot-tub-size payload ring into a makeshift spacecraft that would trail in the stage’s path, gathering data via instruments bolted to its six satellite ports.

The team came in under its $80 million budget—and the mission was a headline-screaming success. Essentially, says Colaprete, “we reached out and touched the water.” The spacecraft calculated a 4 percent moisture concentration in the plume, double that of the Sahara. “We take that for granted here on Earth, but 1 to 2 percent water on the moon or an asteroid is potentially a lifeline,” he says. “From an exploration standpoint, we realize there are a wealth of resources that we can take advantage of. Suddenly, the moon is a more interesting and active place.”

No comments:

Post a Comment