Dry news from Moon probe

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SPACE scientists have all but ruled out the possibility of human settlement on the Moon in the foreseeable future, following yesterday's successful crash-landing of the Lunar Prospector space probe.

Scientists were hoping the impact would throw up a huge plume of dust and vapour, indicating the presence of water. But there was none.

The probe, travelling at 3,800mph, crashed into a crater at 10.52am yesterday, said Nasa spokesman, David Morse. "All the data suggests the probe didn't hit the rim of the crater or miss it altogether, so we are confident it crashed in it. That is an amazing achievement." But elated though the space scientists were, the early indications that there is no water was described by a Nasa official as "a bit of a disappointment".

The mission to crash the 157kg Lunar Prospector into a 25-mile-wide crater near the Moon's south pole 240,000 miles from Earth had less than a 10 per cent chance of success, according to a Nasa spokesman. He said it may be days before scientists can establish the mission's success. "If we get the plume then we know there is water, but if we don't, it doesn't rule out the possibility. It may be the probe did not heat up the ice cap enough or crashed in an area where there was not enough water."

David Goldstein, a University of Texas scientist observing from the McDonald Observatory in west Texas, said no signs of impact were detected by telescopes focused on the lunar south pole.

"Prospector has done all it could and it has been a wonderful success, but all the lunar rocks which have been brought back have not shown any signs of water," he said.

But the astronomer Patrick Moore was even more pessimistic. "I never thought there would be water on the Moon. I do not believe in lunar ice," he said. "I am happy to stick my neck out and say that there is no water there. There is hydrogen but no water."

Finding water would raise the prospect of Moon bases and the manned exploration of the solar system. It would also be the finest tribute to the late Eugene Shoemaker, a leading planetary geologist whose ashes were on board the probe and landed in their final resting place yesterday.

Scientists such as Shoemaker believed that ice from comets that crashed into the Moon over many thousands of years may have avoided evaporation in the permanent shade of the polar craters, where temperatures never rise above -200C.

n Britain is to launch a space probe to investigate whether there is life on Mars, it emerged last night. It will descend to the surface of the red planet from the European Space Agency's Mars Express satellite, which is already scheduled to start orbiting the planet in 2003.