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
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
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
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.