A NASA/Ames Research Center mission will send a rocket in early 2009 crashing into the moon at an extreme velocity, causing a massive impact to throw debris above the lunar surface which will be analyzed by an observatory trailing behind. The analysis will search for hydrated minerals, which would clue in researchers to the presence of water on the moon. The launch is timed for optimal viewing conditions from Mauna Kea's telescopes.
Isles to get prime view of crash course on moon
Hawaii will have a front-row view for a spectacular rocket crash on the moon in early 2009, say those planning the project at the NASA/Ames Research Center.
The launch is being timed for optimal viewing conditions from Mauna Kea's telescopes, said Jennifer Heldmann, observation campaign coordinator. Isle residents also should be able to see the moon show with a "modest telescope," she said.
"It's really an exploration mission," principal investigator Anthony Colaprete said in a telephone interview. "We're going to a place we've never been before, to impact a dark crater whose floor has never seen the light of sun for 2 to 3 billion years."
The 4,500-pound rocket will slam into the crater on the moon's south pole at 5,600 mph, making a hole the size of a tennis court, he said. "It will be like a small SUV moving at twice the speed of a rifle bullet."
It will throw dirt about 30 miles up in the air and across the moon's surface for about 15 miles, he said. The debris blowing out of the hole will be studied for compositional information and possible signs of water and ice, he said.
"We're trying to see if, indeed, the hydrogen signatures at the south pole are a result of buried ice." If the lunar surface has frozen water, it possibly could be converted for drinking water or other resources for lunar missions, he said.
Information from the $79 million mission could help to "set up infrastructure for future lunar sorties or colonization," Colaprete said. Or it could provide knowledge about the solar system's evolution "trapped in dark craters like time capsules," he said.
"It's a bit of an experiment by NASA to see if we can do lower-cost missions, less than $100 million, in a fast-track way," he noted.
The first launch window for the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite -- LCROSS mission -- is Oct. 28 next year, he said. The mission is the secondary payload on a lunar reconnaissance orbiter that will map the moon for a year in a polar orbit.
The spent upper stage of the rocket will become an observatory following behind the impactor with a suite of cameras and other instruments to collect data from the dust plume and send it to earth.
"It will fly right through the ejected cloud from the first impact and give us a very unique perspective we've never had from any kind of mission," Colaprete said. But it will have only a four-minute lifetime before it crashes itself, he said.
An armada of spacecraft from three or more countries also will be orbiting the moon, Colaprete said. "It is going to be really spectacular, an international effort to get there and really understand the moon in a way we haven't been able to before."
Planning the launch is "definitely tricky," Heldmann said. "We're trying to make it as easy as possible for astronomers to view the impacts from the islands."
Colaprete said the LCROSS mission will be similar to NASA's Deep Impact mission observed in Hawaii in 2005 when a detachable probe from a spacecraft was programmed to crash into Comet Tempel 1 to explore its interior.
"But we do something different," he said. LCROSS holds onto the spent upper stage of the rocket as a little spacecraft "that acts like a tugboat," he said.
It will do a moon flyby then go into a large earth orbit designed to return the upper stage to one of the moon's poles in a way to create maximum impact, he said.
"It's a very clever low-energy way to actually position this upper stage of the rocket to impact the south pole of the moon at very steep angles and high velocities."