Since the last American astronaut left footprints on the moon
25 years ago, human exploration of Earth's familiar companion has
taken a back seat to space shuttles, a space station, and
high-profile unmanned missions to places like Jupiter and Mars.
But with the confirmation last week that large amounts of ice
or frost rest in the dark recesses of craters at the moon's poles,
the moon's star may once again be on the rise.
Initial readings from the tiny Lunar Prospector spacecraft
orbiting Earth's companion point to from 10 million to 300 million
metric tons of water on the moon - enough to "enable a modest
amount of colonization for centuries," says William Feldman, a
researcher with the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico
and a co-investigator on the Lunar Prospector team.
Such a colony, or cluster of colonies, could well turn the
moon into a lunar Legoland, where Mars-bound spacecraft or large
structures for orbit could be built and launched for a fraction of
the cost of building and launching them from Earth.
"The implications are tremendous," says Alan Binder, the
lead scientist on the Lunar Prospector project.
Launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
on Jan. 7, the $63 million Lunar Prospector is the first of several
dedicated moon missions planned for the coming years. Next year,
Japan is scheduled to launch its Lunar-A spacecraft, which consists
of an orbiter that will drop probes deep into the lunar surface,
although not at the poles. Four years later, Japan hopes to launch
Selene, which will put an unmanned lander on the moon to study its
composition. Meanwhile, the European Space Agency is studying a
proposal to put an orbiter around the moon in 2000, to be followed
by a lander in 2001. The lander's target is the rim of a crater at
the moon's south pole.
Follow-up missions from the US may come first from the
private sector. Dr. Binder says he wants to conduct 10 more
missions - including sample return missions - with private
financing through his Lunar Research Institute, based in Gilroy,
Calif. He hopes to launch his first mission within the next two
years. A start-up company on Long Island, Applied Space Resources
Inc., is planning a sample return mission for the year 2000.
Such missions, especially at the moon's poles, are needed to
confirm Lunar Prospector's findings, mission scientists say,
because while their craft's evidence is convincing, it is still