In its first lunar expedition in more than a decade, NASA plans to crash a spent rocket into the south pole of the moon Friday to see if water exists there. If it does, scientists also want to see if there is enough to prove useful for space expeditions.

Luke Sollitt, assistant professor of physics at The Citadel, helped create the $79 million mission. "I get to smash something into the moon," Sollitt said. "How cool is that?"

The two-ton spent rocket will hit the moon at 5,600 mph, creating a 1,000-ton plume up to 25 miles high. Meanwhile, part of its payload,

the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, will fly through the debris and assess it for the presence of water ice or vapor.

Four minutes later, the satellite will smack into the moon and excavate a second crater. The Hubble Space Telescope and the Keck Observatory in Hawaii will be watching the impacts. Anyone with at

least a 10-inch telescope may be able to see the effects, according to Scientific American.

The mission reflects Sollitt's long-time interest in the moon. "I actually was thinking about water on the moon when I was in graduate school," he said.

Sollitt became part of the effort to look for moon water while a scientist at Northrop Grumman Corp. He was a member of the team that came up with the project concept.

The NASA Ames Research Center and Northrop Grumman collaborated on the effort.

The mission, which also included the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter as part of its payload, was launched in June. The orbiter will map the moon's surface in unprecedented detail.

"I'm just fascinated by space exploration," he said. "This truly is the final frontier. There are literally an infinite number of things to learn out there."

If water ice is found on the moon in sufficient quantities, the reserves could be converted to oxygen, drinkable water or even rocket fuel, making a lunar base for astronauts possible. NASA plans to return humans to the moon by 2020 and eventually set up a permanent base at one of the moon's polar regions, according to Northrop Grumman.

During an interview at his office, Sollitt pointed to a computer image of a giant lunar crater which he described as a mystery. It is the largest crater in the solar system, and it extends from the south pole of the moon almost to its equator. "Why didn't this shatter the moon?" he said.

Whatever smashed into the moon may provide clues about the history of the Earth. Did a giant meteor hit the Earth, changing the natural environment and the course of evolution? "When you look at the moon, you are looking at the history of the solar system," he said.

The NASA rocket will smash into the south pole of the moon at about 7:30 a.m. Friday. The crash is expected to create a crater 16 feet deep and about 30 yards wide.

The June issue of Scientific American reported that scientists know there is hydrogen at the lunar poles but they don't know if it is locked in water or something else. The lunar south pole has not seen sunlight in 2 billion years.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711 or pfindlay@postandcourier.com.