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U.S. space probe moving into lunar orbit

Prospector launched last week  

MOUNTAIN VIEW, California (CNN) -- The space probe Lunar Prospector successfully executed the first of three engine bursts designed to swing it gently into orbit around the moon, officials said on Sunday.

The small, unmanned orbiter, NASA's first return to the moon since the Apollo 17 astronauts walked on the lunar surface in 1972, completed its "orbital insertion" burn by 4:15 a.m. (7:15 a.m. EST), said Betsy Carter, a spokeswoman for mission control at NASA's Ames Research Center.

"We're very excited. Our spacecraft knows how to fly," said mission manager Scott Hubbard. "The scientific staff is ecstatic. Everything about this mission is looking very, very clean."

Lunar Prospector was launched Tuesday on a one-year mission to scan the moon for minerals and possible water ice, which could one day be used by human settlers.

After two more engine burns, the 4-foot, 650-pound spacecraft was expected to ease into its final orbit on Tuesday, some 60 miles above the moon's surface.

Lunar Prospector does not carry a camera, but is equipped with five instruments designed to map the composition of the entire lunar surface.

Researchers say the shadowy geographical poles themselves could yield some of the mission's most exciting results. Using its neutron spectrometer, Lunar Prospector will be checking for excess hydrogen, an indication of water.


Scientists have speculated that frozen water from icy comets may have accumulated within polar craters on the moon that are permanently shaded from the sun, and radar readings sent back by the U.S. military's Clementine probe in 1994 appeared to confirm that.

The existence of water ice on the moon could prove immensely useful for future human colonies; for example, its components could be separated for use as rocket fuel.

With a price tag of $63 million, the Lunar Prospector is a modest successor to the multibillion-dollar Apollo project, which put 12 men on the surface of the moon from 1969 to 1972.

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

With its 240,000-mile, 4 1/2-day journey from Earth behind it, Lunar Prospector will begin to circle the moon, scanning its surface composition, detecting magnetic fields and mapping gravitational anomalies on its outer crust.

Along with its scientific instruments, Prospector carries one ounce of the ashes of planetary scientist Gene Shoemaker, who died last year.

Shoemaker, his wife, Carolyn, and amateur astronomer David Levy discovered the broken comet that crashed into Jupiter in 1994. He was also involved in the unmanned Ranger missions that paved the way for the Apollo moon landings.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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