NASA Probe Strikes Moon’s South Pole
WASHINGTON - NASA scientists on Friday reported successful impacts of the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) lunar mission, 6,000 mile-per-hour controlled crashes into the Cabeus crater on the moon's South Pole.
"I guess my summary is 'really cool'," said Pete Worden of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., which ran the mission. "Today, we kicked up some moon dust and all indications are we are going to have some really interesting results."
Aimed at determining whether the moon contains ice deposits in its shadowed polar craters, the $79 million mission's booster landed at 7:31 a.m. ET, kicking up a moon dust plume.
The mission's "shepherd" spacecraft passed through the plume, observing its chemistry, and then hit the left wall of the crater at 7:35 a.m. ET., kicking up its own plume. Earth observatories and spacecraft observed both impacts.
"We have the data we need to address the questions we have and that's the bottom line," says LCROSS project scientist Anthony Colaprete. "Everything worked out beautifully." All of the shepherd's instruments recorded data from the plume.
Observations made by LCROSS before its demise will be pooled with data from others to determine whether the vapor cloud contains water. In theory, polar craters shadowed from the sun could contain water mixed with lunar soil, likely left over from comet impacts on the moon, which is what the scientists hope to observe.
A preliminary observation suggests the booster rocket made a divot about the size expected in Cabeus crater, Colaprete says, which was 90 feet deep, predicted to kick up a plum more than 6 miles high. The height of the plume should have brought its contents into sunlight, cooking any ice, and allowing observers to measure its density.
Planetary scientists hope to see anywhere from 1% to 10% of the plume contains water, says project head Daniel Andrews, enough to be "meaningful" as a resource for future lunar explorers. "I have to caution people that it will take a while to combine all the data," he says.
An all-star roster of major telescopes observed the impact, as well as NASA's Hubble space telescope and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter launched along with LCROSS on June 18. Hubble images from the impact are expected later today, said LCROSS observation coordinator Jennifer Heldmann, with data from other telescopes already sent and being processed. "That analysis is already going on."
People who got up before dawn to look for the crash at Los Angeles' Griffith Observatory exchanged confused looks instead. Telescope demonstrator Jim Mahon called the celestial show "anticlimactic."
"I was hoping we'd see a flash or a flare," Mahon said.