World Watches as NASA Slams Probe into Lunar Surface

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WASHINGTON — A NASA probe slammed into the Moon Oct. 9, blasting out a curtain of debris in which scientists hope to detect signs of water ice.

The $79 million Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), preceded by its Centaur rocket stage, impacted the lunar surface at the large south pole crater Cabeus at 7:31 a.m. EDT in what NASA Chief Scientist Jim Garvin called “the ultimate physics experiment.”

“We keep finding evidence that there is water [on the Moon],” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told Space News here. To find more with LCROSS “would be incredibly good news. It would be another place we can send humans,” he added. Bolden said he had been following the last steps of the mission throughout the night.

The LCROSS probe beamed live images of the Moon as its Centaur rocket stage headed for impact before making its own death plunge four minutes later. The two probes crashed, mission managers assured, but whether LCROSS caught the much touted flash of the Centaur’s impact was not immediately clear.

The target crater became larger and larger, with its bumpy relief becoming clearer, in the broadcast images as LCROSS sped toward the Moon. There were gasps and then claps from the Newseum crowd here as the viewing screen filled with the image of the crater and then went white.

Mission scientists watched the crash primarily from the probe’s operations center at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., but astronomers and amateur skywatchers also tuned in at observatories and other sites around the world — including here at the Newseum, where more than 300 people watched the NASA impact broadcast on a huge 12-meter screen.

“This is the biggest screen I’ve ever seen,” said one of the scores of people in the crowd of NASA employees, members of the press and public, including several bleary-eyed children.

Among the crowd were Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin and Chip Cronkite, the son of late CBS TV news anchor Walter Cronkite, to whom the mission is dedicated.

“We hope this is just the first of many oases we find,” Cronkite said.

NASA launched LCROSS and the powerful Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) in June to hunt for evidence of water and ice on the lunar surface.

Scientists think that pockets of water ice might exist in the permanently shadowed craters of the lunar south pole. Water has already been detected on the Moon by a NASA-built instrument on board India’s now defunct Chandrayaan-1 probe and other spacecraft, though it was in very small amounts and bound to the dirt and dust of the lunar surface.

NASA has been planning for the last five years to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020 for extended missions on the lunar surface. Finding usable amounts of ice on the Moon would be a boon for that effort since it could be a vital local resource to support a lunar base.

The LCROSS impact also was watched by several satellites that normally monitor Earth and spacecraft like the Hubble Space Telescope, Sweden’s Odin observatory and LCROSS’s sister spacecraft, the LRO probe, which were due to analyze the debris after the impact to look for signs of water ice.

“All eyes are on LCROSS today,” Bolden said during remarks before the impact.

The crashes were expected to kick up tons of Moon dirt and carve a new crater within the 98 kilometer wide Cabeus. That new crater could be as large as 20 meters wide and 4 meters deep. In a pass over the lunar south pole later today, LRO will image the LCROSS impact crater.

Some 350 tons of Moon dirt was expected to be blasted nearly 10 kilometers above the lunar surface. Unlike past Moon crashes by other probes, like Japan’s recent Kaguya mission, LCROSS slammed into the lunar surface at a steep angle and was slated to kick material up high enough to be illuminated by the sun as seen from Earth and other spacecraft.

Seasoned skywatchers on Earth equipped with quarter-meter telescopes had a chance to spot the crash on their own, if they knew where to look.

“There’s not going to be these grand, spectacular images of ejecta flying, kind of what you’ve seen in animations or cartoons,” LCROSS principal investigator Tony Colaprete told reporters on the eve of the impact. “It’s going to be more of a muted shimmer of light, but that muted shimmer of light contains all the information we need to answer our questions.”

Scientists do not know yet whether or not they have detected water in the LCROSS ejecta, as it is expected to take some time to analyze the data.