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Ice 'most likely' the stuff in moon crater

closeup of crater
A L S O :
NASA hopes third time's the charm for Mars probe launch
December 3, 1996
Web posted at: 5:00 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Scientists went public Tuesday with some of the most exciting news about the moon in three decades -- ice "most likely" exists at the moon's sun-deprived south pole.

Scientists considered several possibilities in their efforts to confirm the substance, including an odd rock arrangement, but decided that "ice is the most likely thing," Dr. Stewart Nozette of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories said at a Pentagon news conference.

The government was formally reporting the news, which leaked out Monday. The apparent discovery needs further confirmation, the Pentagon said.

The primary significance of the news is the discovery of water, which might support human life and provide the raw materials of rocket fuel, said Dr. Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute.

"Water is probably one of the most valuable strategic materials we can find in the solar system," Spudis said.

icon (153K/14 sec. AIFF or WAV sound) radar image

Experts believe the ice may have arrived as a comet or comets that smashed into the moon, which is made of dry rock and soil. The water may then have migrated into a deep crater at the moon's darkest part. Scientists are still studying the comets' track record for clues.

"The answers are on the moon, and they're on the moon in this dark area," Spudis said.

icon (162K/15 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

The patch of probable ice is thought to be about 25 feet thick and the diameter of a small pond.

It was discovered by the probe "Clementine," which was sent to the moon in 1994 and has been sending back data since. The data was collected by radio waves beamed from the Clementine into the moon's polar areas.

another shot of crater

The Pentagon said the radio waves could distinguish ice, at least tentatively, because rocks and soil scatter the waves while the smooth surface of ice bounces them back in a coherent pattern.

The Clementine spacecraft is a $75 million program that uses the moon as a target to test sensors and other devices for a U.S. antimissile missile defense. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration supplied a team of scientists to analyze information from it.

Apollo spacecraft and U.S. astronauts visited the moon in a series of missions from July 1969 to December 1972.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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