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S P E C I A L The Lunar Prospector Mission

Moon launch delayed 24 hours


In this story:

January 5, 1998
Web posted at: 8:34 p.m. EST (0134 GMT)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (CNN) -- The launch of Lunar Prospector, a low-cost unmanned spacecraft poised atop an Athena rocket, was delayed for 24 hours Monday night because of radar problems.

Lunar Prospector launch, Tuesday 9:28 p.m. ET (0228 GMT)

Last-minute trouble with the Air Force radar needed to track the rocket forced NASA to postpone the launch until Tuesday night.

If NASA does not launch Prospector on Tuesday, the space agency will have to wait until early February to take advantage of the most fuel-efficient route to the moon.

Prospector is the first U.S. moon mission in 25 years. "We stand on the threshold of a major scientific event," program scientist Joseph Boyce said.

The 4-foot, 650-pound Lunar Prospector is to orbit 63 miles above the lunar surface while it searches for ice, gas and minerals that might one day be used by astronauts living on its surface.

It is expected to focus in particular on the moon's south pole, where scientists believe frozen water may have collected from the impact of icy comets. The south pole is the only part of the moon that remains in total darkness.

Radar readings from the U.S. Department of Defense's Clementine probe appeared to confirm the presence of ice, but many scientists remain skeptical.

Some believe that what the probe detected was not ice at all, but simply rough patches on the steeps sides of a crater.

Only hours before the planned Monday night launch, NASA officials revealed a secret of the mission -- that an ounce of the remains of a "great founder" of planetary science will be aboard the craft.

NASA scientists told CNN the ashes of Eugene Shoemaker will be aboard Prospector. Shoemaker was a co-discoverer of Shoemaker-Levy 9, a comet that crashed into Jupiter three years ago. The event was captured by ther lenses of the Hubble Space Telescope and established Shoemaker as "one of the great founders of planetary science," according to NASA's Edward Bowell.

A bargain-basement mission

At $65 million, the Lunar Prospector mission is a bargain-basement special compared to NASA's multibillion-dollar Apollo project that put 12 men on the moon between 1969 and 1972.

Apollo 17, the last Apollo mission, blasted off December 7, 1972, carrying Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmitt on the final manned moon mission.

Budget cuts in the early 1970s forced NASA to abandon lunar exploration, and the space agency concentrated its efforts on building the space shuttle and sending unmanned probes to Mars and the outer planets.

The Jupiter-bound Galileo probe took a fleeting glimpse of the moon as it sped past Earth on two occasions, in 1990 and 1992, but interest in Earth's nearest celestial neighbor was boosted when the Clementine probe detected the presumed icy deposits.

The Lunar Prospector is equipped with five instruments, including an electronic divining rod that will enable it to detect the hydrogen atoms in water. If there is water on the moon, future pioneers could break it down and separate it into hydrogen and oxygen and make their own fuel.

"The absence of it would not detract from the idea of having a lunar base," says Wesley Huntress Jr., head of NASA's space science office. "It just makes it much easier for its existence."

'If there's water ... we'll see it'

The Prospector is due to assume its orbit about the moon's poles after a 4 1/2-day coast through space, and could learn within a month whether there is ice on the surface.

"If there's a cup of water in a cubic yard of lunar soil, we'll see it," said mission manager Scott Hubbard.

The Lunar Prospector also will measure the composition of the surface, detect magnetic fields and map gravitational anomalies in the moon's outer crust.

Its mission is expected to last about a year. When it runs out of fuel, the Lunar Prospector will crash on the moon's surface.

The launch is to take place from Spaceport Florida, a former missile testing facility that has been converted by the state of Florida to serve commercial rocket launches.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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