A whimper of a crash, a wealth of data
POSTED: Saturday, October 10, 2009
NASA's rocket shot to the moon fizzled as a spectacular cosmic show, but the chief investigator said it produced a "wealth of data" scientists are analyzing in search of water.
A plume more than 3 miles high was anticipated when the Centaur rocket moving at a speed of more than 1.5 miles per second hit the moon's surface—an event timed early yesterday for optimum viewing with Mauna Kea's powerful telescopes.
NASA had urged amateur astronomers with 10- to 12-inch telescopes to observe the event and share their images with the space agency.
But there wasn't much to see, said Peter Michaud, Gemini Observatory spokesman. "It was not what everyone hoped it would be. ... It was fairly subtle. "A little crater was formed," he added. "It (the spacecraft) did what it was supposed to do. It just didn't throw up as much stuff as people would have liked."
While there was no dazzling dust plume from the crash of the rocket or shepherding spacecraft, Anthony Colaprete, Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite principal investigator and project scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center, said it was a scientific success.
Speaking at a news conference, he said, "The LCROSS science instruments worked exceedingly well and returned a wealth of data that will greatly improve our understanding of our closest celestial neighbor. The team is excited to dive into the data."
The primary goal of the $79 million mission was to find evidence of water that could be used as a resource for a human base on the moon.
Moon party a big hit
More than 100 people showed up at Windward Community College's Lanihuli Observatory for a lunar party with hot chocolate and live video images of the LCROSS crash.
The turnout at 1:30 a.m. yesterday "was incredible," said Joe Ciotti, professor of physics, astronomy and math and director of Center for Aerospace Education.
He said a live feed was provided from the telescope onto a 6-foot image of the moon. "It was a very good view for people of the moon. They could see details. We were able to point out the exact spot for the impact in shadow."
He said the crowd did a countdown. "When that moment (of impact) passed, it was dark in the shadow. ... That doesn't mean they're not going to get any science out of it," he said, citing the advanced technology in use on Mauna Kea's telescopes.
"Even though we didn't see a plume, I think people walked away excited just being part of history, the re-adventure of going back to the moon again."
The satellite was launched in June with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter from Kennedy Space Center in Florida and separated from the Centaur rocket about 54,000 miles above the moon's surface.
The Centaur hit Cabeus crater on the moon's south pole at 1:31 a.m. Hawaii time, followed four minutes later by the spacecraft, which sent data from the impact and plume back to NASA before the crash.
Diane Wooden of the Ames Research Center was among astronomers observing from the W.M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, and she coordinated observations at Keck, Gemini and NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility op- erated by the University of Hawaii.
Keck spokeswoman Ashley Yeager said Wooden and the other astronomers plan to report results of their data early next week.
She said Wooden used a Keck II spectrograph to analyze the plume for chemical signs of water vapor. "It is the first time that astronomers could use features on the moon's surface to properly position the Keck II telescope to take spectroscopic observations and images of the lunar surface," Yeager said in a news release.
John Rayner of the UH Institute for Astronomy, staff scientist responsible for instrumentation at the Infrared Telescope Facility, built a spectrograph used on the telescope for the mission to look for clues of water.
The theory is that there is ice in the polar regions of the moon, which are very cold and permanently shadowed, he said. It is hoped to find water lodged in the dark areas in the form of ice.
Rayner, in an interview, said the mission "technically went really well for everybody. Unfortunately, we didn't see anything. All the telescopes paid off. The moon didn't cooperate."
He said the Infrared Telescope Facility team has been practicing for a couple of years to precisely guide and position the telescope to observe the small impact site.
"The moon is a moving target," Rayner pointed out. "We're not used to observing the moon. It's not like observing a star with a telescope, which we do quite easily."
Most surprising, he said, is that the scientists did not see anything in visible telescope images of the spacecraft following the rocket.
"The conclusion is it didn't kick up as much material as we expected," Raynor said. "Now the hard work starts. We have to look at spectra and see if we got anything."