MOFFETT FIELD, California, October 9, 2009 (ENS) – A NASA satellite created twin impacts on the moon’s surface early Friday in a search for water ice. Over the next several weeks, scientists will analyze data from the spacecraft’s instruments to assess whether or not water ice is present.
The Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, traveled 5.6 million miles during its 113-day mission that ended in the Cabeus crater, a permanently shadowed region near the Moon’s south pole.
In preparation for impact, LCROSS and its Centaur rocket separated about 54,000 miles above the surface of the moon on Thursday at 6:50 pm PDT.
Moving at a speed of more than 1.5 miles per second, the Centaur hit the lunar surface shortly after 4:31 am today, creating an impact that instruments aboard LCROSS observed for about four minutes. LCROSS then impacted the Moon’s surface at 4:36 am.
The tons of debris rising from those impacts were visible from Earth through telescopes 12 inches and larger.
The debris plumes are expected to yield the water information scientists are seeking.
As the ejected debris from the Centaur’s impact rose above the crater’s rim and was exposed to sunlight, any water-ice, hydrocarbons or organics vaporized and broke down into their basic components.
These components were monitored by visible and infrared spectrometers and cameras on board the LCROSS. The spacecraft’s visible camera tracked the impact location and the behavior of the debris plume while the visible radiometer measured the flash created by the Centaur impact.
The near-infrared and mid-infrared cameras will determine the total amount and distribution of water in the debris plume.
The LCROSS spacecraft was launched June 18 as a companion mission to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Orbiter is designed to map the lunar surface and characterize landing sites for future missions.
“The LCROSS science instruments worked exceedingly well and returned a wealth of data that will greatly improve our understanding of our closest celestial neighbor,” said Anthony Colaprete, LCROSS principal investigator and project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field. “The team is excited to dive into data.”
NASA officials say the LCROSS mission is key to the future of moon exploration. If the probe confirms reservoirs of ice on the moon, those water sources could support bases that might eventually propel humans to Mars and beyond.
“This is a great day for science and exploration,” said Doug Cooke, associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
“The LCROSS data should prove to be an impressive addition to the tremendous leaps in knowledge about the moon that have been achieved in recent weeks,” Cooke said.
He congratulated the LCROSS team for “their tremendous achievement in development of this low cost spacecraft and for their perseverance through a number of difficult technical and operational challenges.”?
Other observatories reported capturing both impacts, NASA says.
The data will be shared with the LCROSS science team for analysis. The LCROSS team expects it to take several weeks of analysis before it can make a definitive assessment of the presence or absence of water ice.
“I am very proud of the success of this LCROSS mission team,” said Daniel Andrews, LCROSS project manager at the NASA Ames Research Center, located at Moffett Field. “Whenever this team would hit a roadblock, it conceived a clever work-around allowing us to push forward with a successful mission.”
The images and video collected by the amateur astronomer community and the public also will be used to enhance our knowledge about the Moon.
“One of the early goals of the mission was to get as many people to look at the LCROSS impacts in as many ways possible, and we succeeded,” said Jennifer Heldmann, Ames’ coordinator of the LCROSS observation campaign. “The amount of corroborated information that can be pulled out of this one event is fascinating.”
“It has been an incredible journey since LCROSS was selected in April 2006,” said Andrews. “The LCROSS Project faced a very ambitious schedule and an uncommonly small budget for a mission of this size. LCROSS could be a model for how small robotic missions are executed. This is truly big science on a small budget.”