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On October 9, 2009, a two-ton rocket smashed into the moon traveling at 9,000 kilometers per hour. As it exploded in a shower of dust and heated the lunar surface to hundreds of degrees, the jet-black crater into which it plummeted, called Cabeus, briefly filled with light for the first time in billions of years.

The crash was no accident. NASA’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission aimed to see what would be kicked up from the lunar shadows by the impact. A spacecraft trailing the rocket flew through the dust plume to sample it, while NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter observed from afar. The results of the experiment were astonishing: Scientists detected 155 kilograms of water vapor mixed into the dust plume. They had, for the first time, found water on the moon. “It was absolutely definitive,” said Anthony Colaprete of NASA’s Ames Research Center, the principal investigator of LCROSS.

The moon isn’t an obvious reservoir of water. “It’s really weird when you stop to think about it,” said Mark Robinson, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University. Its lack of atmosphere and extreme temperatures should cause any water to almost instantly evaporate. Yet about 25 years ago, spacecraft began to detect signatures of hydrogen around the moon’s poles, hinting that water might be trapped there as ice. LCROSS proved this theory. Scientists now think there’s not just a bit of water ice on the moon; there are 6 trillion kilograms of it.

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