Friday, October 22, 2010

Lots of Takers: On a crater bashed, its water splashed, polar moon base dreams rehashed.

On October 9 last year a flood of news reports told of a great public disappointment in, or on, the Moon. The US LCROSS probe, as it pummeled a dark, exceedingly cold crater near the Moon’s south pole, failed to make a big and literally flashy explosion when its spent-booster-stage impacter rammed home, followed by the heavily-instrumented probe itself. Millions of people put binoculars on the spot, and nothin’. Put LCROSS on this site’s search space and see the initial progression of news last year, from giddy hopes to visible dud and on to first reports that it was a science success anyway as H2O and more lofted miles above the surface. Naked eyes saw nothing but LCROSS’s instruments got plenty.

Today’s cover story at Science comprises the main fruits of data analysis so far. Half a dozen technical reports by scores of authors say not only is there reasonably abundant ice in permanently-shadowed polar recesses where the sun never rises above surrounding heights, but other minerals as well. In Grist at the bottom of this post are press releases, including one from NASA proclaiming “NASA Missions Uncover the Moon’s Buried Treasures.” The ice, it says, appears to be there in near-pure grains, maybe whole shoals. There are other gases frozen to the regolith, including methane – a potential fuel.
It’s hard to quarrel with buried-treasure as news angle. It’s catchy, not too simplistically inaccurate, and its stirs conversation and longing. A NASA teleconference made things easier for reporters to scarf up quotes that they could hear for themselves.

At the Washington Post, to take one example, Marc Kaufman writes hyperbolically but permissibly enough for daily journalism, “Gazing at the moon will just never be the same.” Not only water to drink but fuel for lunar rockets and “a cache of familiar compounds” including methane, ammonia, mercury, and traces of sulfur and silver. Right off the bat, he has one mission scientist exulting over “a treasure chest of elements.”
Coverage is heavy.

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