WASHINGTON (Dec 2, 1996 9:42 p.m. EST) -- The moon, long thought to be bone dry, has a pond of ice hidden deep inside a crater, scientists disclosed Monday, increasing chances that humans may someday live on its surface.
The discovery came from the Clementine spacecraft, which used lasers to examine the depths of the moon's deep craters.
Officials at the Pentagon, who co-sponsored the project with NASA, planned an announcement of the findings at a news conference Tuesday.
"If you could wish for any one thing there to make it easier to explore with, it would be water," said Anthony Cook, astronomical observer at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.
The ice was found in a huge crater deep in the south pole of the moon, said Rick Lehner, spokesman for the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. He said that a panel of scientists have concluded that the ice is frozen water.
"It is an extremely significant discovery," said Lehner, adding that water would make exploration easier.
"With water there you could have enclosed areas to grow plants, grow your own food, make your own fuel, make your own air," he said. "You don't have to launch all that stuff from big rockets on the Earth.
Lehner said the crater is twice the size of Puerto Rico and 13 kilometers deep, or as high as Mount Everest, the tallest peak on earth. He said the ice formation is the size of a small lake and is between 10 and 100 feet deep.
"People have theorized that there may be water on the moon but the (six) Apollo missions didn't find any evidence," he said.
Scientists believe that about 3.6 billion years ago, a comet crashed into the moon, and water droplets on its tail were left in the bottom of the crater, the deepest hole in the solar system, he said.
Because the south side of the moon is always dark, the temperatures in this crater are near minus 230 degrees Celsius, or nearly as cold as any environment can ever get. The water couldn't escape from the crater's "cold traps," he said.
Lehner said the water can be used for drinking, turned into breathable oxygen and transformed into fuel, allowing humans to explore the moon, colonize it or use it as a launch pad to explore other planets.
"You can use the moon as a gas station," he said. That saves the tremendous expense of transporting heavy water in space craft.
Clementine, launched January 1995, was a $75 million mission to test "Star Wars" sensors developed to detect and track missiles. The discovery of ice was an unexpected byproduct, Lehner said.
Because the moon has no atmosphere to trap gases and moisture, signs of ice there also could offer intriguing new clues about its origins more than 4 billion years ago.
Even after the mission detected the ice, scientists debated for months whether it was water or some other frozen liquid or gases. But Lehner said the "consensus" of a scientific panel is that the pond is frozen water.
Even if it is some other liquid or gas, however, scientists say the finding is a significant discovery.
"It doesn't have to be water. It could be a mixture of frozen gases," said Patrick So, an astronomer at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. "There would be speculation about where did it come from. Was it gas that was collected during the formation of the solar system?"
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