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S P E C I A L The Lunar Prospector Mission

Lunar Prospector poised for Monday launch

January 4, 1998
Web posted at: 3:28 p.m. EST (2028 GMT)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (CNN) -- It may not be getting all the advance publicity of a big budget Hollywood movie, but NASA says its Lunar Prospector has the potential to become the blockbuster of the coming century.

At $65 million from start to finish, Prospector is NASA's most cost-effective mission ever.

"We wanted to show that for the cost of a typical Hollywood movie, you can explore interplanetary space," said mission manager Scott Hubbard. "I personally think this is the best little $65 million mission money can buy."

NASA hasn't launched a mission to the moon in more than 25 years, so what's all the fuss about?


And, perhaps, secrets about the origin of the universe.

A lake of 'moon penguins'

Earth on lunar horizon
Apollo 8 photograph of the Earth rising above the lunar horizon  

Lunar Propector is scheduled to launch Monday evening, at about 8:30 p.m. EST. By January 10, Prospector is expected to be in its orbit around the moon, where it will stay for about a year, until it runs out of fuel and crashes into the moon's surface.

"The goals of the mission are scientific," NASA administrator Wesley Huntress told reporters Sunday. "They're to remotely prospect the lunar crust and its atmosphere for potential resources, including minerals, potential water, ice, and gases."

Prospector also will map the moon's surface and collect data to determine if it has a magnetic field, which will tell NASA scientists whether the moon has a core. If one truly exists, scientists will be able to learn more about the moon's origins and perhaps even the origins of the universe.

But NASA knows the question most people want answered is whether water exists on the moon. The answer to that most probably lies at the moon's south geological pole -- the only part of the moon that is always in total darkness.

Prospector will look there for hydrogen and polar caps.

"You won't see a lake with moon penguins skating around it," Hubbard said. "You'll have water ice mixed in with lunar soil. If there's a cup of water in a cubic yard of lunar soil, we'll see it."

Scientists say the moon was "born dry," but that water could have come in contact with its surface via comets, and other objects that may have made impact over the eons. In order for the substance to have stayed intact, it must have avoided contact with the sun's energy -- hence the concentration of Propector's search on the southern pole.

The discovery of polar caps would make it easier for future space explorers to establish a lunar base, but not finding water would not make establishing a lunar base impossible.

"Is there or is there not water at the South pole? Either answer is acceptable ... we've done our mission," Huntress said.

The Prospector team says they could know the answer within the mission's first 30 days.

Special Section

Launch looks good

Fully loaded with fuel and all five scientific instruments, Prospector weighs a mere 650 pounds. NASA officials say the rocket and payload have been in place on the pad since just before Christmas.

Prospector's launch will be the first at the new Spaceport Florida pad, designed specifically for today's newer, smaller breed of spacecraft. Florida built the pad to help keep the state at the center of space exploration into the next century.

NASA officials say while rain is projected off Cape Canaveral through Tuesday, the possible showers should not interfere with Prospector's scheduled launch, which has a four-minute window.


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