NASA launches rocket to moon

June 18, 2009 6:38:33 PM PDT
NASA launched a rocket to the moon Thursday afternoon. Its mission is to map the surface of the moon and look for water -- both important steps in long-term plans for astronauts to return there.

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An ecstatic crowd at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View watched the launch of NASA's LCROSS -- the lunar crater observation and sensing satellite.

The LCROSS is on a mission to find out if there is water on the moon, frozen in the shadowy polar regions.

"If we can find water actually present on the moon, it is an immense cost-savings for a plan to do a semi-permanent or permanent presence on the moon as a stepping stone to go on to Mars," NASA Ames payload scientist Kimberly Ennico said.

Ennico built the instrument panel that will be sniffing for water.

"In order to live off the land, to live off world, we have to be able to use resources that are off world and if we can find that these resources are present on the moon, it makes the problem a little bit more manageable," Ennico said.

The LCROSS will orbit the moon while other equipment makes a detailed map of the moon's surface, looking for safe landing sites for astronauts.

Then in October, a spent 2 ton Centaur booster rocket will hit the moon's surface at 5,600 miles an hour. The resulting 30,000 foot plume will be studied to see if it contains water.

NASA Ames Director of Science Michael Bicay says the search for moon water was born when scientists first discovered there was hydrogen at the lunar poles 10 years ago.

That led to a renewed interest in space exploration.

"We have a national objective now to return astronauts to the moon, not for a few days at a time like we did in the Apollo era, but to live there for extended periods," Bicay said.

So how long before man is using the moon as a rest stop on the way to mars? Bicay says it all depends on the American public's desire to get there.

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