NASA’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) is one step closer to determining whether water ice exists in a permanently shadowed crater near the lunar south pole, having passed rigorous preflight testing earlier this month.
The spacecraft was subjected to extensive testing to simulate the harsh conditions of space, including 13.5 day heating and cooling cycles which saw the spacecraft endure temperatures ranging from 110 degrees Celsius down to minus 40 degrees.
Artist impression of LCROSS heading towards the Moon. Two heavy impactors will plunge into the permanently dark floor of a south polar crater in the hopes that water ice will be thrown up in the impact event. Image: NASA.
Just like on Earth, water is a crucial resource on the Moon but it is highly impractical, not to mention expensive, to transport to space the amount of water needed for lengthy manned expeditions. Finding natural resources, such as water, could help to secure the future of human exploration of the Moon.
LCROSS will begin this search for water by excavating the permanently dark floor of one of the Moon’s south polar craters with two heavy impactors to test the theory that ancient ice lies buried there. The first impact will eject material from the crater’s surface to create a plume that LCROSS will fly through, collecting and relaying data back to Earth before impacting the surface and forming a second plume.
As the ejecta rises above the crater’s rim and is exposed to sunlight, any water ice, hydrocarbons or organic material will vapourise and break down into their basic components, which will be monitored by the visible and infrared spectrometers onboard LCROSS. Near and mid infrared cameras will determine the total amount and distribution of water in the plume, and the visible camera will locate the position of the impact and the behaviour of the debris plume. The debris plumes are also expected to be visible from Earth and space based telescopes of 10-12 inches and larger.
LCROSS is scheduled for launch later this year, dropping its water-seeking penetrators in early 2009. LCROSS will be sharing its lift to the Moon with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which will map the lunar surface and characterise landing sites for future missions. LCROSS and LRO are components of a wider framework of robotic missions to the Moon, which are precursors to establishing a sustainable human presence on the Moon. Ultimately, the lunar outpost will become a stepping stone to future exploration of other bodies in our Solar System, including Mars.