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09 Oct 2009 10:08
Nasa is preparing a violent return to the moon on Friday as part of a mission to send a satellite and a rocket booster crashing into the surface to look for water.
Conspiracy theories aside—a “do not bomb the moon” website is already campaigning against the move—there is no actual bomb, but the US space agency’s LCROSS satellite and heavier Centaur upper-stage rocket will still leave huge impact sites where Nasa hopes to find evidence of water or ice.
At 11.30am GMT, the rocket and four minutes later the spacecraft will separately race into the moon at 9 000km/h to kick up approximately 10km of lunar dirt from the Cabeus crater floor near the satellite’s south pole.
The flash that will follow the impact will last about 30 seconds.
A camera mounted on the 891kg Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) will beam live footage back to Earth.
The carnage is also the first preparatory mission of the Constellation programme that aims to bring Americans back to the moon by 2020.
“We don’t anticipate anything about presence or absence of water immediately. It’s going to take us some time,” cautioned Anthony Colaprete, project scientist and principal investigator for the LCROSS mission, which has a $79-million budget.
Colaprete projected it would take several days for analysts to evaluate the data and several weeks to determine whether and how much hydrogen-bearing compounds were found.
For those hoping to catch a bare-eyed glimpse of the impact, the scientist had sad news.
“It’s not going to be a grand spectacle that you can go outside in your back yard and see with your bare eyes or even a good binoculars.
It’s going to be too faint,” said Colaprete.
More powerful telescopes around the world and also the Hubble Space Telescope will nevertheless get a good view as they focus on the giant cloud of debris.
Nasa scientists will be looking at what spews out after 350 tonnes of debris is ejected from the cold, dark Cabeus crater, staking its hopes on water in the form of ice.
The crater is 100km across and between 2,5km to 4km deep.
“We’re hunting for how water ice was stored and trapped in these permanently shadowed areas over billions of years and we want to find out how much there is,” explained Peter Schultz, a professor of geological sciences at Brown University who helped design the mission.
The mission comes just two weeks after India hailed the discovery of water on the moon with its Chandrayaan-1 satellite mission in partnership with Nasa.
Scientists had previously theorised that, except for the possibility of ice at the bottom of craters, the moon was totally dry.
Finding water on Earth’s satellite would be a major breakthrough in space exploration and pave the way toward future lunar bases for drinking water or fuel, or even man living on another planet.
“This could be the place that we could go to mine water for a permanent lunar base,” said Schultz.
“It tells us something about how water was delivered to the moon and other planets in a sort of cosmic rain, meaning impacts from comets over eons.”
But much uncertainty surrounds Nasa’s future dealings with the moon, as key review panel appointed by President Barack Obama’s administration said existing budgets bar a return before 2020.
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