NASA will send an impactor spacecraft to the moon with liftoff of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, scheduled for October 2008. The Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) will travel independently of the orbiter and crash violently into the lunar surface, at a speed of 5,592 miles per hour (or about 2.5 kilometers per second) to search for water. It should blast out a crater about a hundred feet wide and 15 feet deep.
First, the craft will direct the upper stage used to leave Earth orbit to crash into a permanently-shadowed crater at the lunar south pole, creating a plume visible on Earth through a telescope. Next, the satellite will observe the plume and fly through it using several instruments to look for water. At the end of its mission, the satellite will itself become an impactor, creating a second plume visible to lunar-orbiting spacecraft and Earth-based observants.
Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, is expected to orbit the moon for at least a year and to generate extremely detailed maps. It will be equipped to probe the unexplored polar regions on the Moon. Not only will it identify obstacles and a safe landing spot, but also sensor sweep the terrain and gauge it for usable resources.
NASA's Lunar Prospector circled the Moon for over a year in 1998-1999, charting levels of hydrogen in shadowed craters near the Moon's south and north poles. That hydrogen signal has been inferred by some specialists as billions of tons worth of water-ice below a modest covering of soil. Earlier, the Pentagon's Clementine spacecraft also hinted that water-ice may be found in sunlight-deprived polar craters.
The moon collision and orbiter will be the first of several lunar robotic projects before astronauts are sent to the moon, targeted for 2018. The entire mission will cost more than $600 million with the impactor project cost-capped at $80 million.
By going to the moon, astronauts will search for resources and learn how to work safely in a harsh environment -- a stepping stone to future explorations. Water is the key ingredient for supporting future human outposts on the moon, a goal of the Bush administration. If there is ice to be found, it can be used for drinking water for astronauts and as coolant for equipment. It can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen - ingredients for rocket fuel that need not be brought from Earth. Still, whether that icy material is truly tucked away at the Moon's poles is to be seen.
This isn't the first time NASA has directed the blasting of the Moon. The Ranger project of the 1960s was the first U.S. effort to launch probes directly toward the Moon. The spacecraft were designed to relay pictures and other data as they approached the Moon and finally crash-landed into its surface. A variety of difficulties plagued the first several attempted missions in this series, but the later Rangers were finally a complete success.