Before NASA sends astronauts to live on the moon in 2020, per presidential mandate, the agency must first figure out what resources the lunar neighborhood has to offer. Are there stores of ice that could be melted and processed to provide oxygen to breathe and hydrogen for rocket fuel? Or is the potential fuel locked up inside rocks? To find out, NASA has a simple yet ingenious plan, set to launch in 2008: Slam two chunks of steel into a crater near the moon´s southern pole and study what flies out. Of top interest is hydrogen, discovered beneath the soil during previous missions. The key here, says NASA investigator Anthony Colaprete, is that scientists will finally learn how the hydrogen is stored-in ice, minerals or as free protons in the lunar soil. This information, he explains, â€will tell us which way we need to go in terms of the technology for extracting it.â€

Launch the slideshow to see how LCROSS will bring NASA one step closer to its lunar home away from home.

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T Minus 0: Impact!

The upper stage slams down, sending 2.2 million pounds of lunar soil-and perhaps ice-into space. (Amateur astronomers with 10-inch telescopes will be able to see the massive dust plume.) The resulting moon divot could be up to 16 feet deep and 100 feet wide. And because the upper stage will have burned all its fuel during its climb into space, none of it will contaminate observations of the cloud´s contents.

Kamikaze Science

Infrared and visible-wavelength cameras on board the trailing spacecraft measure the chemical signature of the plume. The craft relays data to NASA´s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) at a rate of 1.5 megabits per second until just before its own impact. Its findings will help scientists confirm the existence of ice on the moon and locate potential hydrogen. One danger: â€A piece of moon could hit it and knock us out,†says NASA´s Colaprete.

Mission Prep

The Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, consists of a 1,540-pound spacecraft stocked with cameras and the 4,400-pound upper stage of the rocket that carries it into space. After an October 2008 liftoff, these two conjoined components embark on a three-month trip around the Earth and the moon. Twenty hours before the first crash, they separate. The upper stage free-falls into the moon´s Shackleton Crater.

Mine on the moon

Extracting water from the moon and breaking it apart into hydrogen and oxygen–i.e. rocket fuel–could turn a moon base into a profitable investment.