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NASA dodging rumors about ice on the moon

NASA illustration of Prospector scanning the moon's surface  
In this story: February 19, 1998
Web posted at: 7:00 p.m. EST (0000 GMT)

HOUSTON (CNN) -- NASA officials are doing their best to ignore rumors that the Lunar Prospector spacecraft has detected water on the moon's surface.

Alan Binder of the Lunar Research Institute in Gilroy, California, and the chief scientist for the mission, acknowledged a Houston Chronicle report that scientists are "buzzing" with speculation that Prospector has found water on the moon.

But his response Thursday was, "The only advice I can give you is don't believe the rumors either way."

Binder said, "We are getting fairly certain of our findings," but NASA spokesman Doug Isbell said no announcements would be made until a news conference on March 5.

Binder said there have been "almost as many rumors that say we have discovered tons of water as no water." Mindful that another NASA claim about finding bacterial life in a Martian meteorite is still very much in doubt, Binder said NASA wants to be absolutely certain of its findings before making a statement.

"I hope you appreciate that we do not want to go public with an announcement that is premature and end up having to change the story a few weeks later," Binder told the Chronicle. "We are being very cautious. When we are certain, we will make an announcement."

A vital resource for explorers

Prospector launch
Lunar Prospector lifts off  

The $63 million Lunar Prospector has been circling 60 miles above the moon since shortly after its launch on January 6 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The 4-foot-tall, 650-pound spacecraft is equipped with two neutron spectrometers and a gamma ray detector designed to help it detect as little as a cup of water in a cubic yard of lunar soil.

It was sent, in part, to search the lunar poles for ice deposits thought to be the remnants of comets.

The presence of ice was suggested by astronomers in the 1960s, and interest was rekindled in 1994 when the Pentagon satellite Clementine found what appeared to be ice in a crater at the moon's south pole.

Apollo astronauts who went to the moon between 1969 and 1972 did not see ice, but those missions were in equatorial regions where ice deposits are thought unlikely.

If the findings are confirmed, the water could provide a vital resource for space explorers. NASA scientists envision using moon ice to make rocket fuel for spacecraft shuttling to Earth or more distant destinations and for human consumption.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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