NASA Spacecraft to Search for Water on Moon - SUNNYVALE

NASA unveiled on Wednesday the Lunar Prospector, a low-cost, unmanned spacecraft due for launch in September, and scientists hope the m...

NASA unveiled on Wednesday the Lunar Prospector, a low-cost, unmanned spacecraft due for launch in September, and scientists hope the mission will settle the question of whether there is water on the moon.
Lunar Prospector will mark the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) first mission to the moon since the six Apollo landings between 1969 and 1972.

The simple spacecraft, 4-1/2 feet high and weighing 660 pounds when fully fueled, was shown to reporters at the Sunnyvale facility of Lockheed Martin Corp, which built it.

The mission is part of NASA's Discovery program, which stresses lower-cost, more frequent scientific missions. NASA officials are proud that the total cost of the Lunar Prospector mission -- including launch, mission operations and data analysis -- is $63 million, a fraction of the price of some of its previous projects.

Lunar Prospector will circle the moon in a polar orbit for a year, mapping the entire surface of the moon from an altitude of 60 miles.

Although astronauts have walked on its surface, NASA officials say there is much we do not know about Earth's nearest planetary neighbor.

"Many people are under the impression that we've been there and we've done that. That's not true. More than 75 percent of the moon's structure and composition has never been mapped," said Scott Hubbard, Lunar Prospector mission manager at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.

Interest in the Lunar Prospector is high because of the revelation in December that the moon, previously thought to be bone-dry, may contain water.

Scientists who analyzed radar signals from Clementine, a Defense Department spacecraft that orbited the moon in 1994, said they suggested the presence of water ice in a deep basin near the lunar south pole. Ice crystals may be mixed with dirt there, they said.

Lunar Prospector should confirm whether or not there are water ice deposits in the polar regions of the moon, NASA says. The spacecraft carries a neutron spectrometer which detects hydrogen that scientists said would almost certainly be in the form of water.

"Lunar Prospector will tell us for sure. If there's a cup of water in a cubic yard of moon dirt, we'll find it and then we'll really know," Hubbard told a news conference.

If there is water on the moon, some scientists have suggested, it could pave the way not only for a human colony there but could also be separated into hydrogen and oxygen and used as rocket fuel, enabling the moon to serve as a staging post for missions to distant planets.

"If there's water, I think the impetus to go back to the moon with man will be very great," Alan Binder, principal investigator for the Lunar Prospector project at Lockheed Martin, said.

Any water found on the moon would have come from comets striking its surface because the moon itself does not have water, Binder said.

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