WASHINGTON: The United States on Friday blasted the surface of the moon with two rockets on a mission to look for water below the lunar surface that could be used by astronauts on future space missions, NASA said.
At 1130 GMT the LCROSS satellite crashed into the Cabeus crater floor near the moon's south pole at around 5,600 miles (9,000 kilometers) per hour, followed four minutes later by a shepherding spacecraft equipped with cameras to record the impact.
Grainy thermal images carried on the US space agency's television station showed colder blue sites and warmer red sites on the moon's surface, but there was no apparent light flash as the rockets made impact.
NASA said the blasts would kick up a plume of lunar dirt to an altitude of about 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) and produce a flash lasting about 30 seconds.
Cameras mounted on the 1,965-pound (891-kilogram) shepherding spacecraft were to beam live footage of the initial impact as the craft flew through the debris plume, collecting and relaying key data back to Earth before it too plows into the moon.
"The LCROSS science team is making their preliminary assessment of approximately four minutes of data collected from the LCROSS Spacecraft. Observatories involved in the LCROSS Observation Campaign are reporting in," the mission website said after the impact.
"We don't anticipate anything about presence or absence of water immediately. It's going to take us some time," cautioned Anthony Colaprete, project scientist and principal investigator for the 79-million-dollar LCROSS mission, which is also the first preparatory mission of the Constellation program that aims to send Americans back to the moon by 2020.
Colaprete projected it would take several days for analysts to evaluate the data and several weeks to determine whether and how much hydrogen-bearing compounds were found.
Ahead of the launch, Victoria Friedensen, LCROSS program executive, said she was feeling "a lot of exhilaration, a little sadness."
"I never thought I'd work on something as interesting," she told NASA television.
NASA scientists will be looking at what spews out after 350 tonnes of debris is ejected from the cold, dark Cabeus crater, staking its hopes on water in the form of ice.
The crater is 62 miles (100 km) across and between 1.6 and 2.5 miles (2.5 to four km) deep.
"We're hunting for how water ice was stored and trapped in these permanently shadowed areas over billions of years and we want to find out how much there is," explained Peter Schultz, a professor of geological sciences at Brown University who helped design the mission.
The mission comes just two weeks after India hailed the discovery of water on the moon with its Chandrayaan-1 satellite mission in partnership with NASA.
Scientists had previously theorized that, except for the possibility of ice at the bottom of craters, the moon was totally dry.
Finding water on Earth's natural satellite would be a major breakthrough in space exploration and pave the way toward future lunar bases for drinking water or fuel, or even man living on another planet.
"This could be the place that we could go to mine water for a permanent lunar base," said Schultz.
"It tells us something about how water was delivered to the moon and other planets in a sort of cosmic rain, meaning impacts from comets over eons."
Friedensen said interest levels in the project were high because of the potential if water were found.
"If we had it there, we could actually make exploration be a bit more sustainable," she said. "We could make fuel on the moon."
But much uncertainty surrounds NASA's future missions to the moon, as a key review panel appointed by President Barack Obama's administration said existing budgets bar a return to it before 2020.
The last manned mission to the moon, Apollo 17, took place in 1972.