Space junk comes handy for lunar mission

This artist’s rendering released by NASA on Friday shows the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite as it crashes into the moon to test for the presence of water.

The mission designers took advantage of what would have otherwise been space junk — the rocket’s 2.2-ton, second stage — and turned it into a projectile to hit the Moon, shepherded by a car-size spacecraft.
While the orbiter entered orbit around the Moon, LCROSS swung into a wide polar orbit around the Earth that, by design, would intersect with the Moon’s path four months later at 5,600 miles per hour.

The target of LCROSS is Cabeus crater, about 60 miles wide near the south pole.
At 6:50 pm Pacific time Thursday, the LCROSS spacecraft separated from the expended second stage and, 40 minutes later, fired thrusters to slow slightly and drop behind. While LCROSS itself had the best view of the first impact, sending back live television images, a host of telescopes in space and on Earth, including the Hubble Space Telescope and the Keck telescope in Hawaii, were gazing at the Moon. The other telescopes also saw the second impact of the spacecraft.

Several hundred people spent a chilly night on a grassy lawn at NASA’s Ames Research Center here, where the mission is being run. Some pitched tents to spend the night. Others wrapped themselves in sleeping bags and Google-contributed mylar blankets as they listened to Charlie Duke, one of the Apollo 16 astronauts, and then watched three space-themed films — ‘Fly Me to the Moon’, ‘The Dish’ and ‘October Sky’ — projected on a big screen. Then they watched the same NASA coverage of the mission, streamed over the Internet, that they could have watched at home.

“It’s adventurous and nerdy at the same time,” said Karin Atkins of Sunnyvale, California, one of those pulling an outdoors all-nighter. Nine-year-old Alberto Rodriguez of Redwood City had asked his mother if he could go to the all-night NASA event, and at 10 pm, his mother woke him up. “I just wanted to see the real thing,” said Alberto, who said he wants to become an astronaut and head to the Moon and Mars.

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