Friday, October 9, 2009

Spacecraft kamikaze smashes into moon

As hundreds of telescopes and observers watched, a NASA mission to search for water on the moon has achieved its grand finale with a pair of high-speed crashes into the lunar surface – but there was curiously little to see.

At the Ames Research Center near Palo Alto, California, scientists and engineers with the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) peered in silent concentration as successive images of the crater Cabeus grew larger on their screens. Shortly after 4:31 am Pacific time (12:31 BST) there was no telltale flash to be seen from the expected collision of a 2366-kilogram booster rocket into the permanently shadowed crater, located near the moon's south pole.

LCROSS, which was following the booster and guiding it, trained visual and infrared cameras on the impact site for 4 minutes before it too plunged into the crater. In the final seconds before signals from LCROSS were lost, mission controllers announced detection of a heat signature from the rocket impact.

According to Michael Bicay, director of science at Ames, there are at least two possible scenarios that could explain what happened. The first is that the "gain" on the cameras was not set correctly to portray the debris plume. It could be revealed later if the data were displayed differently.


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