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S P E C I A L The Lunar Prospector Mission

Lunar Prospector blasts off

The Athena 2 rocket lifts off and with it, the Lunar Prospector  
In this story: January 6, 1998
Web posted at: 10:43 p.m. EST (0343 GMT)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (CNN) - The unmanned Lunar Prospector blasted off on a 240,000-mile journey into space Tuesday night, beginning NASA's first moon mission since men last set foot on the lunar surface 25 years ago.

A sleek, white Lockheed Martin Athena 2 rocket carrying the probe lifted off at 9:28 p.m., successfully negotiating a short, four-minute "launch window," which was all that the Earth-moon alignment allowed.

The rocket's three stages dropped away, one after the other, in the first six minutes after the launch, leaving the Lunar Prospector propelled by a thrust module expected to lift it into orbit around the moon after a 4 1/2-day flight.

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"After 25 years of having not been to the moon by NASA, it certainly feels good to be going back," said program scientist Joseph Boyce. "I couldn't be more excited, more happy, more pleased."

The launch was to have taken place Monday night, but a malfunctioning U.S. Air Force radar dish forced a day's delay while technicians spent five hours fixing the problem.

The radar is one of three on the Florida coast needed to track the rocket for safety reasons.

The launch was rescheduled for Tuesday, but with only the brief launch window. The shifting positions of the Earth and moon meant NASA had only four minutes in which to launch the probe and take advantage of the most fuel-efficient trajectory.

Had there been technical or weather difficulties, NASA would have had to wait until February 3 for the Earth and the moon to be in favorable positions again for another try.

Searching for water

The 4-foot, 650-pound Prospector is to orbit 63 miles above the lunar surface while it searches for ice, gas and minerals.

Prospector's projected path
Prospector's projected orbital path  

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.

Some scientists believe there could be as much as 1 billion tons of water ice on the moon, a theory bolstered by the findings of the Department of Defense's Clementine spacecraft in 1994.

Radar readings taken by the craft appeared to confirm the presence of ice, but some scientists believe that what the probe detected was not ice at all, but simply rough patches on the steep sides of a crater.

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

Orbiting begins Sunday

The craft 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 rocket fuel.

The Prospector could learn within a month whether there is ice on the surface.

It will also measure the composition of the surface, detect magnetic fields and map gravitational anomalies in the moon's outer crust. When it runs out of fuel, which should be in about a year, the craft will crash on the moon's surface.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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