“I want to build a spacecraft and crash it into the moon. Don’t worry, it will only cost me $80 million.”
I doubt that is exactly how the conversation behind the idea for NASA’s LCROSS project was presented. But in essence, that is what is going to happen later this summer.
The LCROSS mission is designed to slam the expended upper stage of a Cenatur rocket into the south pole of the moon in the hopes that in the debris field from the resulting crater, we’ll see signs of water. A sheparding craft will drift behind the spent rocket and analyze the dust up. The shepard will also carry a camera, so it will be able to record the impact of the rocket, as well its own demise as it too crashes into the moon. Check out a cool animation of the mission here.
Short of landing a rover with analyzing equipment at the poles, this is an efficient way of determining whether water lies within the regolith. As NASA makes plans to return to the moon and potentially establish a permanent base, finding a local source of water would be a boon for a human outpost.
The LCROSS spacecraft will be launched along with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter on a single rocket (similar to the ESA’s Herschel and Planck dual payload launch this past May) on June 17th. Just after achieving orbit, the two spacecraft will go their separate ways. LRO will gather data and map the moon for over a year, orbiting at just over 30 miles above the surface, while LCROSS loops around the Earth preparing for its big show. The exact date for the impact is still in the works, so watch for updates on the LCROSS Twitter page.
NASA is also encouraging ground-based observers to turn their lenses toward the moon on the day of the impact. While no one is sure how bright the explosion will be, we may well get a visual surprise. So if you have one, break out your scope and settle in for the potential fireworks. Or contact your nearest observatory and find out if it is hosting any special LCROSS events.