On Friday, October 9, I cut my morning swim short and walked in the dark along Constitution Avenue, past the glowing U.S. Capitol and toward the entrance of the Newseum. Normally the museum doesn’t open until after sunrise, and it’s filled with tourists; but on that morning the doors opened to the public shortly after 6:30, and the lobby was filled with space geeks.
It was on this morning that the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), after traveling about 5.6 million miles, would reach its destination, crashing into the moon’s frigid Cabeus crater at 5,600 miles an hour. The expectation was that the exquisitely planned impact would stir up lunar material that hadn’t seen sunlight in billions of years and would send home data that might help answer Earthlings’ question once and for all: Is there water on the moon?
Several hundred of us were seated in front of a giant screen for the live video feed. I sat next to a man who works for a small space organization, and we were surrounded by name-tagged NASA employees. After words from a few speakers, we sat in silence, listening to mission control. I smiled to myself, thinking that we were about to see scientific history being made. (At the very least, it was awesome that so many of us were collectively excited about something out in our solar system so early in the morning.) Plus, we all had reason to expect a great show on the screen--like watching fireworks or a demolition or a debris plume that shot miles into space.
Countdown continued. The anticipation was riveting. The lobby was silent. We saw the far-away crater on the screen, getting closer and closer. And at the moment of impact, I held my breath for the show, only to find a screen that had turned completely white. I turned to the man next to me in confusion. His perplexed expression was my answer. Everyone was baffled, but none of us showed any signs of disappointment, simply for missing a cool display. This was so much bigger than an early morning gathering of space geeks So much more magnificent than a screen shot of exploding lunar rock. If successful, this mission would be grand, with or without the video stream climax.
And successful it was. Friday, NASA announced that preliminary data from LCROSS shows that the mission successfully uncovered water, which can teach us something about the history of our solar system. It also means researchers can set up a base there one day.
“Indeed yes, we found water,” Anthony Colaprete, LCROSS project scientist and principal investigator at NASA’s Ames Research Center said in a news conference. “And we didn’t find just a little bit. We found a significant amount.” Although it will take time to process all the data (26 gallons of water, in the form of ice, were discovered), and it’s still unclear where the water came from, Colaprete said, “We are ecstatic.”
And that means I’m ecstatic too. For a NASA mission developed and launched in a surprisingly short amount of time to face no major hurdles and yield such valuable information is a triumph. And while the video feed at the moment of impact was a bust, I’ll always remember the energy and exhilaration among my science-loving peers that morning. See you all next time when we send astronauts back to the moon.
This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com