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New Mexico State University

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NMSU astronomers say presence of water on moon will lead to more missions

Through a collaborative effort that involved researchers around the world, NASA has learned that water does indeed exist on the moon - but don't crack out the bathing suits for a refreshing lunar dip just yet. Scientists still have to determine just how much water the moon holds and how we can utilize it.

The inset of this image shows the plume of lunar debris that was kicked up by the impact of the rocket. NASA was able to detect the presence of water on the moon and must now research further to discover how that water is distributed. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

"The big picture here that we are all starting to understand is that the moon is not as dry as we thought," said Nancy Chanover, an assistant professor at New Mexico State University. "However, whether there is enough water concentrated in specific locations that we can identify for potential use in a manned program - that remains to be seen."

Astronomers at NMSU were stationed at Apache Point Observatory in Sunspot, N.M., and at Tortugas Mountain Observatory in Las Cruces, to observe the moment of impact on Oct. 9, 2009, when a rocket crashed in a shadowy crater near the south pole of the moon as part of NASA's Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission.

"There was a pretty small plume of dust from the impact," Chanover said. "The plume was so small, it wasn't big enough for it to have risen over the rim of the crater such that it would have been visible from Earth."

But that does not mean there was nothing to be seen from the observatories.

In December, NMSU astronomers presented their observations from Apache Point and Tortugas observatories to the thousands of attendees at the American Geophysical Conference in San Francisco, Calif.

Ryan Hamilton, an NMSU graduate student involved in the project, said that the shepherding spacecraft that was part of the LCROSS mission observed about 24 gallons of water in the plume of dirt kicked up by the rocket, but there might be more in the crater.

Chas Miller, an NMSU graduate student, said that this detection of water tells us only about one small area at the point of the LCROSS impact and that it remains unclear how much water is stored elsewhere on the moon. This leaves the door open for further research on the distribution of water on the moon.

Chanover said NMSU's role now is to provide NASA with upper limits on how high the plume rose as well as to archive their data in NASA's Planetary Data System to ensure that it will be accessible to future investigators.

The NMSU researchers agreed that this was an exciting project to be a part of.

"Everyone successfully collected exactly the data they were supposed to about the impact," said Miller.

"This is one of the few times that NASA has tried to bring ground-based observers on board as real collaborators for a mission," Chanover said. "I thought it was really exciting."

Full results of the LCROSS mission will be made available to the public later this year. NMSU astronomers also plan to publish their findings.