NASA spacecraft to slam moon's south pole today

Explosion experiment is an attempt to find traces of water


NASA is to send a used-up spacecraft slamming into the moon’s south pole to kick up a massive plume of lunar dirt and then scour it to see if there’s any water or ice spraying up. The idea is to confirm the theory that water — a key resource if people are going to go back to the moon — is hidden below the barren moonscape.

The crashing spaceship was launched in June along with an orbiter that’s now mapping the lunar surface. LCROSS — short for Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite and pronounced L-Cross — is on a collision course with the moon, attached to an empty 2.2-ton rocket that helped get the probe off the ground.

“This is going to be pretty cool,”' LCROSS project manager Dan Andrews said. “We’ll be going right down into it. Seeing the moon come up at you is pretty spectacular.” Within an hour, scientists will know whether water was hiding there or not.

The mission is a set-the-stage venture dreamed up by the NASA office that has been working on a $100 billion program to eventually return astronauts to the moon. The return-to-the-moon goal is now being re-examined by NASA and the White House.

These are not crashes for the faint of heart. The two ships will smash into the moon at 5,600 mph, more than seven times the speed of sound. The explosion will have the force of 1.5 tons of TNT and throw 772,000 pounds of lunar dirt out of the crater. It will create a new crater — inside an old one — about half the size of an Olympic swimming pool, Andrews said.

But don’t feel bad for the moon. It gets crashes this size about four times a month from space rocks. But the difference is this one is planned and at just the right angle and location to provide interesting science for astronomers.

The southern polar region is a prime landing possibility. This crater, called Cabeus, is one where astronomers think there is a good chance of hidden ice that would be freed by the crash, describing the dirt there as “fluffy.”'

The crashes will be broadcast live on NASA’s website. The Hubble Space Telescope and other larger Earth telescopes will be trained at the moon. Observatories and museums are planning viewing parties in at least three countries.

People who live in areas where it will be daylight won’t be able to see it from home telescopes. Amateurs need at least a 10-inch telescope to look at the crashes and what they see will only be a small part of their overall view in the scope. And they won't see the impact itself, but the spray of debris flying up.

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