Nasa bombs the Moon – but where was the fallout?

Unexpected twist in lunar mission to discover frozen water but scientists remain confident of success

It was supposed to have been the dramatic climax of an ambitious space mission to find large bodies of frozen water on the Moon – a discovery that could accelerate the exploration of the solar system.

But Nasa scientists admitted yesterday that they were perplexed as to why the deliberate crashing of two parts of a spacecraft into a lunar crater failed to produce the predicted six-mile-high plume of debris that should have been visible from Earth.

The plan was to generate a cloud of ejecta from the crater that would carry any frozen water molecules buried in the permanent shade of its bed to the sunlight at its rim, where they could have been detected by the second half of the crashing spacecraft.

Everything went according to plan, with the spacecraft, called the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCross) dividing just prior to its collision with the Cabeus crater near the lunar south pole yesterday, about 12.30pm British time. The only thing missing was the visible plumes of dust as each part of the spacecraft hit the crater's base about four minutes apart.

Despite the apparent setback, Nasa scientists said that they were still able to carry out all the measurements they had expected to make. They are confident that if water was present in the crater, they will still be able to detect it with LCross's highly sensitive spectroscope designed to measure the electromagnetic emissions of the hydroxyl molecule of water.

"Everything really went very well, the spacecraft flew beautifully and the instruments performed better than expected. We've got interesting results," said Anthony Colaprete, the LCross principal scientist.

"There was an impact, we saw the impact, we saw the crater and we got the spectroscopic measurements. We have the data there to answer the questions we wanted to answer."

All three cameras on board LCross, including a thermal camera made by the British company Thermoteknix, monitored the impact with the crater. It began with the crash of the 2.2-tonne Centaur rocket – the empty upper stage of the spacecraft – followed a few minutes later by the impact of the smaller, instrument-packed probe of LCross after it was supposed to have flown through the debris plume.

Asked about the absence of a visible debris cloud, Dr Colaprete said: "We need to look a bit closer before we conclude anything about an ejecta cloud or not ... Life is full of surprises and we don't want to make a false positive or false negative claim. I'm excited that we saw variations in the spectra.

"We're going to be working on this feverishly. We've just not been able to see [the plume] clearly in our image data yet, but we're going to go back and look more closely," Dr Colaprete said. Finding water in the Cabeus crater would have immense implications for space exploration. Not only would it provide a source of drinking water for a permanently manned lunar base, but also a source of hydrogen for making rocket fuel to visit Mars and beyond.

"A means to produce rocket fuel on the Moon could make a more ambitious space exploration programme feasible at lower cost. While the Moon's surface is full of oxygen in mineral forms, hydrogen is the other key element that could make rocket fuel production practical on the Moon," Nasa said.

More than a dozen professional telescopes monitored the impact from Earth, which was also analysed by a handful of space telescopes, including the Hubble. They could add further critical data on the detection or otherwise of the hydroxyl molecule, to confirm the presence of frozen water in shaded craters where temperatures never rise above about -210C.

Nasa estimates that there are 12,500sqkm of permanently shadowed terrain on the Moon and if the top metre of this area were to hold one per cent by mass of water, this would still produce thousands of litres of water.

It is not the first time that a spacecraft has crashed into the Moon. In 1998, Nasa's Lunar Prospector mission was deliberately crashed into a crater, confirming the presence of hydrogen.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent