WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A decade after NASA sent a rocket crashing into the moon’s south pole, spewing a plume of debris that revealed vast reserves of ice beneath the barren lunar surface, the space agency is racing to pick up where its little-remembered project left off.
The so-called LCROSS mission was hastily carried out 10 years ago Wednesday in a complex orbital dance of two “suicide” spacecraft and one mapping satellite. It proved a milestone in the discovery of a natural lunar resource that could be key to NASA’s plans for renewed human exploration of the moon and ultimately visits to Mars and beyond.
“The LCROSS mission was a game changer,” NASA’s chief Jim Bridenstine told Reuters, adding that once water had been found the United States “should have immediately as a nation changed our direction to the moon so we could figure out how to use it.”
The agency now has the chance to follow up on the pioneering mission, after Vice President Mike Pence in March ordered NASA to land humans on the lunar surface by 2024, accelerating a goal to colonize the moon as a staging ground for eventual missions to Mars.
Bridenstine says the moon holds billions of tons of water ice, although the exact amount and whether it’s present in large chunks of ice or combined with the lunar soil remains unknown. To find out before astronauts arrive on the moon, NASA is working with a handful of companies to put rovers on the lunar surface by 2022.
“We need next to get on the surface with a rover to prospect for water, drill into it, and determine how suitable it is for extraction,” said Jack Burns, director of the Network for Exploration and Space Science at the University of Colorado.
Instead of launching expensive fuel loads from Earth, scientists say the lunar water could be extracted and broken down into its two main components, hydrogen and oxygen, potentially turning the moon into a fuel arsenal for missions to deeper parts of the solar system.
Weeks before the LCROSS impact booster struck the moon’s south pole, the mission’s development timeline “was a bad rush to the finish line,” Tony Colaprete, principal investigator for LCROSS, told Reuters.
“We wanted to make as large of a hole as possible to get as much materials out of the shadows and into the sunlight,” Colaprete said, describing an unusually fast-paced program using technology that had never been used in space before.
Engineers and mission leaders used the business phrase “open kimono” about disclosing company information to characterize the program’s breakneck development speed and the need for clear and open lines of communication between contractors and NASA.
“That almost became a mantra for the project,” Colaprete said.
The current lunar program is also “forcing some cultural changes” at NASA, he added, which has undergone a series of high-level management changes and delays with the agency’s commercial crew program, a public-private effort to resume U.S. human spaceflight for the first time since 2011.
“People are coming together in a way like they did on LCROSS.”
Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Richard Pullin