Crashing the moon

Since a lot of us like the idea of high-energy impacts (what, you don’t?) an event set for this summer should be a real hoot.

The good folks at NASA are going to crash two spaceships into the moon. Oh yeah, they’re trying to make it sound like some kind of science mission to find water to support a moon base, but they aren’t fooling anyone. These people use liquid oxygen to kick-start the charcoal in their barbecues, so don’t tell me science has anything to do with it.

Anyway, the formal name for this gig is the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, which is supposed to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in late April. After a series of orbits around the earth and moon to pick up speed, the spacecraft should be on its final approach about 80 days after launch.

(Go here to reach the NASA Web page on the mission.)

According to an article by Mohi Kumar in the current issue of Smithsonian Air & Space, if everything goes right, about 10 hours before impact the Centaur upper stage will separate from the satellite (called the Shepherding Spacecraft). Traveling at 5,616 mph, the 4,400-pound Centaur will then slam into a crater on the moon’s north pole, kicking up a debris plume the following satellite will then fly though.

Once it has transmitted pictures and other data to earth, the Shepherding Satellite itself will be crashed on the lunar surface. The debris plume from that smashup will be monitored by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and perhaps other orbiting spacecraft.

If anyone out there has a “relatively modest 10- to 12-inch telescope” they should be able to watch the LCROSS collisions. According to the article, observers in the western United States (that includes us) should be in an optimal viewing position for the event.

Of course, all this crashing and smashing is being done in the solemn name of Science. So ignore all those exclamations of “Wow!” “Cool!” “Neat!” coming out of the Ames Research Center later this year.


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