December 4, 1996 in Nation/World

Sky’s The Limit? Not Anymore Lunar Ice Gives Nasa Goosebumps

Seth Borenstein Orlando Sentinel
 

FOR THE RECORD (December 5, 1996): Correction: The diameter of the moon crater shown in the informational graphic on page A1 Wednesday is actually 500 miles. The Department of Defense mistakenly reported the crater’s circumference as its diameter.

Ice on the moon. Fossils from Mars. Slushy water on Europa, one of Jupiter’s major moons. Suddenly, the solar system seems smaller, more hospitable and much more enticing to explore.

New scientific discoveries in the past four months pointed to water and even life in places previously thought to be barren. The latest came Tuesday when the Pentagon formally announced that there may be ice in a crater at the moon’s south pole.

“Places that a year or two ago would have seemed pretty unlikely to find life or extremely provocative new discoveries, we are finding are more interesting than we thought,” said American University astronomy professor Richard Berendzen. “Heaven knows what new discovery may pop up tomorrow.”

But with a limited space science budget, NASA has to figure out where to go and what to ignore. There’s a wealth of possibilities but not of money.

“There’s a lot more to do than we’re realistically going to be able to afford,” said Carl Pilcher, NASA’s chief of long-range planning for space science. “We’re going to have to come up with priorities that are based on sound scientific judgments. We’re not going to run out of things to do.”

This year’s new discoveries should convince Congress to loosen the purse strings and increase NASA’s $1.86 billion space science budget, NASA Advisory Council Chairman Bradford Parkinson said Tuesday.

The latest news that the Pentagon’s Clementine probe seems to have found a sign of ice on the arid moon could be confirmed next year when NASA launches Lunar Prospector. The $63 million lunar probe has been in the planning stage for more than a year.

What’s most interesting about the ice is what can be done with it, scientists say. It could make returning people to the moon - an idea NASA has been studying for more than a year - much more feasible.

The ice can be converted into water for drinking, oxygen for breathing, and, most importantly, liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Those liquids combine to make the same rocket fuel the space shuttle uses.

“We would actually be able to build a filling station on the moon. We can save an enormous amount of weight and an enormous amount of cost,” Lunar and Planetary Institute scientist Paul Spudis said in a televised Pentagon news conference. The institute is a think tank with loose ties to NASA.

An ongoing NASA study has found it would take about $2 billion to $3 billion to send people back to the moon and set up a permanent base, said Kent Joosten, a NASA mission analyst who has been working on the project.

“It’s getting closer to the break point where we could do it for a cost that the public would be willing to foot,” Joosten said Tuesday.

By using the ice on the moon, NASA could cut in half the cost of flights after the initial installation of a lunar base, Joosten said. Then the moon could be used as a jumping off point for human exploration of other places, such as Mars. However, using the ice may not be feasible because it is located deep inside a crater.

Scientists say Mars probably will remain NASA’s No. 1 priority for exploration - but only with robots. NASA would like to send humans to the planet in about 20 years, but the Clinton Administration said recently that mission is not a priority. Despite Mars’ harsh atmosphere, it has shown more life signs, probably underground, than anywhere else.

“Considering the gross places we find life on Earth, it doesn’t take much to stretch the imagination that life once existed on Mars and it could still be there today,” said Ed Weiler, NASA’s chief Hubble Space Telescope scientist. “We’re not talking intelligent life, just little critters.”

What appears to be a fossil found on a meteorite from Mars was discovered in August. That was after NASA had finished building two spacecrafts heading for Mars this year. So neither will be able to look for that type of life, but they will be able to point scientists where to look in the future.

NASA’s $196 million Mars Pathfinder, which will land a rover on Mars on July 4, 1997, was launched early today.

Days after the Mars meteorite finding, NASA’s Galileo probe returned the first pictures of Europa, which hinted at a mix of water and slush under a layer of ice on the surface. Heat, water and hydrocarbons are the building blocks of life and Europa may have all three, astronomy professor Berendzen said.

Scientists hope to find out even more about Jupiter’s moon soon. New pictures of Europa are due from Galileo any day now. And on Dec. 19, Galileo will come within 200,000 miles of Europa for the closest footage yet.

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: A STELLAR YEAR It’s been a banner year for many scientists and astronomers, with exciting discoveries in space: January: The Hubble telescope sent pictures of the deepest-ever view of the universe, causing scientists to greatly expand the estimated number of galaxies to 50 billion. July: Galileo probe views of Jupiter’s moon, Ganymede, showed the possibility of the first-known liquid water off planet Earth and a remote chance of primitive life. August: A meteorite found in Antarctica in 1984 revealed what may be the remains of primitive life forms on Mars - the first significant evidence that life exists elsewhere. October: In a few months, scientists found nearly a dozen new planets outside our solar system. December: Ice found on the moon.

This sidebar appeared with the story: A STELLAR YEAR It’s been a banner year for many scientists and astronomers, with exciting discoveries in space: January: The Hubble telescope sent pictures of the deepest-ever view of the universe, causing scientists to greatly expand the estimated number of galaxies to 50 billion. July: Galileo probe views of Jupiter’s moon, Ganymede, showed the possibility of the first-known liquid water off planet Earth and a remote chance of primitive life. August: A meteorite found in Antarctica in 1984 revealed what may be the remains of primitive life forms on Mars - the first significant evidence that life exists elsewhere. October: In a few months, scientists found nearly a dozen new planets outside our solar system. December: Ice found on the moon.

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