LOS ALAMOS, N.M., Dec. 30, 1997 -- Sometime in the next month or so, Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists will gather information bearing on a major question impacting the future of space colonization: does the moon have water?
Three Los Alamos instruments on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Lunar Prospector, scheduled for a Jan. 5, 1998, launch, will look for water, map the location of valuable elements and gather data on events that release gases from below the surface of Earth's nearest neighbor.
"If we can find sufficient water, it's going to be a land rush like the Oklahoma Sooners," said Bill Feldman, project leader for the Los Alamos instrument package. Los Alamos is a Department of Energy laboratory.
Feldman is confident that Los Alamos' neutron spectrometer will find water if it is there -- even if it occurs in a very small amount -- most likely in the form of dirty ice in permanently shaded craters near the moon's poles. The instrument, which detects and distinguishes neutrons of different energies, should find even faint traces of any ice that is within three feet of the lunar surface.
Ever since last year, when radar mapping instruments on the Clementine probe suggested the possible presence of water on the moon, the importance of Lunar Prospector has grown. Ice, likely deposited by comet and meteoroid impacts, would open the way to interplanetary colonization.
"Water is the key resource that will support life as well as travel from the moon to the planets. Besides sustaining life for moon colonies, hydrogen from the ice can be extracted for rocket fuel," Feldman said.
"I am sure that there are people who would colonize the moon once sufficient water is available," he continued. "The moon is one of the best environments you could possibly have for any number of scientific and commercial enterprises."
In addition to serving as a fueling station for interplanetary travel, a moon colony could provide a base for important research in radio, ultraviolet and infrared astronomy.
Lunar Prospector will take four and one-half days to reach the moon, but Los Alamos scientists will turn on their three instruments -- the neutron spectrometer, an alpha particle detector and a gamma ray spectrometer -- 90 minutes after launch. They want to calibrate the sensors in transit to the moon and make sure everything is working perfectly when the spacecraft reaches its polar orbit around the moon.
After three high-altitude orbital maneuvers at the moon and about a week after launch, Lunar Prospector will settle into its mapping orbit, skimming about 60 miles above the lunar surface.
The neutron spectrometer, the latest in a long line of such instruments built for Los Alamos' nonproliferation programs for the past 35 years, detects neutrons that escape into space when cosmic rays strike the upper layers of the moon's surface.
The spectrometer measures neutrons it encounters in three different ranges of speed, or energy. Neutrons that strike heavy elements bounce around like a ping-pong ball without losing much energy, whereas neutrons bouncing against hydrogen -- the lightest element and a principal component of water -- give up their energy to the hydrogen relatively quickly. The detector will see very few medium-energy neutrons in an area with hydrogen, because the high-energy neutrons generated by cosmic rays quickly become lower energy neutrons. If the detector sees few or no medium-energy neutrons, water must be present.
Feldman said the instrument could give indications of water within a few days of beginning its mapping work, if a lot of water is present, or it could take weeks to make a determination.
"If it's a small spot of ice in a large field of view, it will produce only a small dip in the data," he explained. "That will take a lot of tweaking and a lot of interpretation, and I'll be loath to say anything definite until we're really sure."
Prospector also will carry a Los Alamos gamma ray spectrometer experiment that will provide global maps of the major rock-forming elements on the lunar surface. The instrument records the spectrum of gamma rays and neutrons emitted by elements contained in the moon's crust. The map of certain elements will provide clues to lunar evolution, and tell future lunar '49ers where to look for such valuable elements as aluminum, iron, uranium and titanium.
The moon was sampled during Apollo missions 25 years ago, but along a near-equatorial orbit that covered only 20 percent of the moon. Lunar Prosepctor will map the elements over the remainder of the moon's surface.
An alpha particle spectrometer from Los Alamos will give scientists more information about the moon's minor -- by Earth standards -- seismic activity. Lunar magma that cooled just beneath the outer crust contains uranium, and as uranium-238 decays it produces radon. If moonquakes vent radon to the surface, the spectrometer will capture the evidence by recording the alpha particle signatures of radon's radioactive decay .
The three spectrometers were tested for a year and integrated with Lunar Prospector by Lockheed Martin, which built the spacecraft. The mission is scheduled to last one year.
Lunar Prospector is part of NASA's Discovery Mission series. Alan Binder of Lockheed-Martin Missile and Space Corporation is the principal investigator. Southwest Research Institute in Texas provided electronics for the Los Alamos instruments. Los Alamos staff members Bruce Barraclough and Dick Belian are scientific collaborators on the project and Ken Fuller of Los Alamos' Space Engineering Group was the principal engineer.
Los Alamos National Laboratory is operated by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy.
Materials provided by Los Alamos National Laboratory. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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