- Associated Press - Thursday, October 21, 2010

LOS ANGELES | When NASA blasted a hole in the moon last year in search of water, scientists figured there would be a splash. They just didn’t know how big.

Now new results from the Hollywood-esque moonshot reveal lots of water in a crater where the sun never shines — 41 gallons of ice and vapor.

That may not sound like much — it’s what a typical washing machine uses for a load — but it’s almost twice as much as researchers measured initially and more than they ever expected to find.

The estimate represents only what scientists can see from the debris plume that was kicked up from the high-speed crash near the south pole by a NASA spacecraft on Oct. 9, 2009.

Mission chief scientist Anthony Colaprete of the NASA Ames Research Center calculates there could be 1 billion gallons of water in the crater that was hit — enough to fill 1,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Mr. Colaprete likened the crater to an “oasis in a lunar desert.”

“The resources are there and potentially usable for future missions,” he said, adding that there could be more such craters at both the moon’s poles.

Proof that the moon is dynamic and not a dry, desolate world offers hope for a possible future astronaut outpost where water on site could be used for drinking or making rocket fuel.

But the scientists’ excitement is tempered by the political reality that there’s no plan by the United States to land on the moon anytime soon.

The $79 million moon mission known as the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, was launched to determine whether water exists at the moon’s poles. Previous spacecraft spied hints of possible ice in polar craters.

The mission involved slamming a spent rocket into Cabeus crater. The crash carved a hole about one-quarter the size of a football field.

A trailing spacecraft then flew through the cloud of debris and dust thrown up by the collision and used its instruments to analyze what was inside before it also struck the moon.

Michael Wargo, chief lunar scientist at NASA headquarters, said the impact released “fluffy, snow-covered dirt.”

Besides water, the plume also contained carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, ammonia, sodium, mercury and silver. The findings were published in Friday’s issue of the journal Science.

How the soup of compounds became trapped in Cabeus crater, among the coldest places in the solar system, is not clear. One theory is that they came from comets and asteroids, which pounded the lunar surface billions of years ago, and later drifted to the poles.

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