NASA has bold and visionary plans to send humans to the Moon by 2020 where humans will learn to live and work on another planetary body in our Solar System. Sending people to the Moon isn't easy, though, and there is a lot that we still don't know about our closest celestial neighbor. That makes it tough to plan a human mission to the Moon because unlike during the Apollo program of the 1960s, this time we are going to the Moon to stay for a longer period of time.
The goal is to learn to live and work on the Moon and then take all of the "lessons learned" from this experience so we can then send humans to Mars by 2030. Mars is an incredibly fascinating planet but is much further away from the Earth compared with the Moon, so NASA plans to use the Moon as a "stepping stone" to Mars.
Before we can build a lunar base, though, there are a few important decisions regarding the mission architecture that need to be made. One of those decisions involves resource utilization. Should we use the natural resources that are on the Moon to "live off the land"? If so, what are the resources that might be available on the Moon? One idea is that there may be water ice in the permanently shadowed regions near the poles of the Moon.
It is VERY cold in these places and ice may be stable there for billions of years. There is tantalizing and somewhat contradictory data regarding the presence of lunar ice from the Clementine and Lunar Prospector missions to the Moon as well as data from the Arecibo radio telescope and numerical modeling efforts. Water could potentially be used by the astronauts for drinking and bathing but can also be broken apart into hydrogen and oxygen which can be used for rocket fuel. NASA really needs to know if there is lunar water that we might be able to use - and to help answer that question, NASA is going to slam a rocket into the Moon!
The Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) will purposely impact the Moon near the pole to kick up a huge plume of material. This will be analyzed for the presence of water and other water-bearing compounds. The LCROSS mission will use the spent Earth departure upper stage (EDUS) of the launch vehicle and a small shepherding satellite to guide the EDUS to the Moon. LCROSS will blast the permanently dark floor of one of the Moon's polar craters with the EDUS early in 2009 to test the theory that ancient ice lies buried there.
The EDUS is essentially the size of a large sport utility vehicle (SUV) and will impact the Moon at over 5,600 miles per hour! This event will excavate a new crater on the Moon the size of 1/3 of a football field and 16 feet deep. The impact will cause an explosion of material from the crater's surface to create a plume above the lunar surface (reaching to altitudes of over 30 miles) with enough material to fill the space shuttle cargo bay 10 times!
Specialized instruments aboard the shepherding spacecraft will analyze this plume for the presence of water (ice and vapor), hydrocarbons and hydrated materials and will relay this data back to Earth. Then the shepherding spacecraft will also impact the Moon to create a second plume. Telescopes all around the world and in space will also be pointed at the LCROSS impacts, each with special instruments to monitor the gigantic lunar plumes of material that are ejected above the lunar surface. The impacts will be so big that you will be able to observe them with reasonable grade amateur telescopes.
This exciting mission is being run out of NASA's Ames Research Center in California in cooperation with its spacecraft and integration partner, Northrup-Grumman. LCROSS represents one of NASA's first missions in the return to the Moon and will provide valuable precursor information as we plan to return humans to the lunar surface.
More information about the LCROSS mission can be found at http://lcross.arc.nasa.gov.
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