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  sci-tech > space > story pagecorner  

Crash landing on moon part of NASA experiment

An artist's rendering of the Lunar Prospector shows the spacecraft in lunar orbit

 
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CNN's Denise Dillon reports on a NASA experiment that could pave the way for human colonies on the moon.
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July 31, 1999
Web posted at: 2:47 p.m. EDT (1847 GMT)


In this story:

'Very difficult'

Spacecraft provided 'invaluable' moon maps

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MOFFETT FIELD, California (CNN) -- The mission of NASA's Lunar Prospector ended dramatically early Saturday when it collided violently with the moon so that powerful telescopes on Earth can look for clues that water vapor was splashed into the lunar sky.

The controlled crash drove the spacecraft into a crater the size of a small city at the moon's south pole. Scientists are monitoring the event closely, trying to learn if Earth's satellite contains frozen water.

David Morse of the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, NASA's Mission Control for Lunar Prospector, told CNN that there were as yet no visible signs of the crash, but scientists have no reason to believe the landing failed.

"We're learning that we got the impact that we expected on the moon as scheduled," Morse said.

NASA engineers sent final instructions to the unmanned spacecraft early Saturday morning, telling it to fire its rockets and drive the craft into the lunar surface just before 6 a.m. EDT. After receiving those instructions, the Prospector sped out of site behind the moon before its scheduled crash landing.

Scientists got no more radio signals from the craft, indicating it must have hit the surface. Had the instructions to crash failed, Prospector would have emerged from behind the moon, still sending radio signals.

"We never heard from it again," said David Folta, the guidance officer at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

'Very difficult'

Morse said that scientists were not disappointed that they could discern no visible plume of dust indicating the crash site.

"I was talking to Alan Binder, the principal investigator, and he told me before impact he would not expect to see a debris cloud if we accurately hit the crater," said Morse.

"Had we hit the lip of the crater or the (main) surface of the moon, then you would expect the debris cloud to be very visible," he added.

Without that evidence, Morse said, chances are the spacecraft landed deep in the shadowed crater and possibly "liberated some water ice or vaporized it."

But the chances of finding water on the moon were slim.

"Observatories around the U.S. and indeed around the world are going to have to search very hard for evidence of a water vapor cloud," he said. "It's very difficult."

Spacecraft provided 'invaluable' moon maps

The spacecraft was launched on January 6, 1998, heading for orbit around the moon. Scientists say Lunar Prospector has already provided them with "invaluable" global maps of the moon's gravitational and magnetic fields, and a better understanding of the composition of the rocky neighbor of the Earth.

Last year, early in Lunar Prospector's moon mapping expedition, scientists said they found indications of moon water lurking in countless dots of ice crystals sprinkled throughout the lunar surface. Those findings led to the decision to crash the spacecraft.

The end of the mission was designed to provide evidence of the existence of water ice in permanently shadowed craters near the moon's poles.

Scientists hope that the estimated 3,800-mph impact will exhume water vapor and rocky debris that may be detectable to show that it landed in the planned location.

The crash of Lunar Prospector also finds a quiet burial ground for astronomer Eugene Shoemaker, who died in a car crash in 1997.

Shoemaker and his wife discovered about 800 asteroids and 20 comets -- including the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet that crashed into Jupiter in 1994.

A small vial of Shoemaker's ashes was loaded aboard Lunar Prospector, and now rests with the craft on the surface of the moon.



RELATED STORIES:
Prospector spacecraft to smash into moon Saturday
July 30, 1999
The moon: What's science got to do with it?
July 13, 1999
Data support theory that moon was ripped from Earth
March 17, 1999
Lunar Prospector blasts off
January 6, 1998

RELATED SITES:
NASA Ames Research Center
Lunar Prospector
Lunar Prospector Impact
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