NASA to Bomb Moon in Search for Water

Brown scientists had bird’s eye view of moon impact. Jumped up and down. There was no turning back. We were on a collision course.” That was how veteran planetary scientist Peter Schultz of Brown University described the excitement Friday morning at NASA’s Ames Laboratory in California as he and colleagues watched the suicide dive of an impactor and its mothership into a crater near the south pole of the moon in a violent bid to find water. “You could see the moon getting closer and closer,” Schultz said. He spoke from the headquarters for the team operating the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS. Schultz is a member of the team. The intent was to have the impactor, an empty Centaur booster rocket, blast out a plume of debris that the mothership would photograph and analyze before taking its own kamikaze plunge into the shadowed crater Cabeus four minutes later. It was thought that the crater’s steep walls, a mere 60 miles from the south pole, might have allowed water ice to survive the blazing heat of the sun over the eons. But the impact did not produce the dramatic flash and the prominent cloud of ejecta which many had been led to believe would be visible from Earth. That wasn’t in the cards, Schultz said. “If you were looking with a big telescope, you would be lucky if you could see a stadium-sized crater,” he said. “In other words, you might be able see down to about 100 yards. This was a fifth of that. OK, we were sitting on Earth trying to see something five times smaller than a football field. All we would have seen is a smudge at best. It all went according to plan.” Schultz said there were raised expectations among the public. “The press was saying we were going to bomb the moon. That was press hype, not NASA hype.” He paused and chuckled. “What we did was, we ran into the moon.” He declined to speculate on preliminary findings. “The devil is in the details,” he said. “Water is something we find everywhere. We need to be very careful to calibrate these measurements. If we make a small error, it could look like a lot more, or a lot less. Now, it’s time to get some sleep, to look at the data with fresh eyes. We’ll be going like gangbusters over the next few days.” The smashup took place at 7:31 a.m. EDT.  “If there’s water there, or anything else interesting, we’ll find it,” Tony Colaprete, the mission’s chief investigator, said in a news release. Besides water, spectrometers aboard the mothership were to look for fragments of water molecules, salts, clays, hydrated minerals and various organic materials.

The information gathered was radioed back to Ames for analysis. The force of the Centaur impactor was estimated to equal 1.5 tons of TNT, according to the Associated Press, and had been expected to carve out a crater inside Cabeus the size of an Olympic swimming pool. NASA predicted on Monday that the column of debris hurled aloft could reach six miles. Because of the time of day, the flash and the blasted-out material, however prominent, would not have been visible to anyone in Rhode Island. The impact was best seen from west of the Mississippi River, with Hawaii occupying the catbird seat. Water is important for manned missions to the moon. The Web site estimated that it costs $30,000 to lift a quart of water to the moon. A water source on the moon could also provide oxygen and rocket fuel. Brendan Hermalyn, a graduate student in planetary science who is working with Schultz on the project, stayed up all night to monitor the mission. Hermalyn said he and others were looking primarily at telemetry, in addition to onboard cameras, as the crash neared. “That is the neatest view,” he reported. “The best part was when we were looking at the impact as the camera angle was changing.” He said the watchers were able to detect a flash as the Centaur hit. In California, the big double crash came at 4:31 a.m. Was he tired? “You can run on the adrenaline,” he said. “We’re probably going to take a little rest, then the science team is going to discuss the preliminary results.” –  Inside NASA’s Plan to Bomb the Moon and Find Water. Short on time and tight on money, a team of NASA engineers aims to solve the mystery of lunar ice in late winter—by crashing its low-budget kamikaze spacecraft into a crater. Astronomers hate the moon. It’s so bright that it blinds telescopes like the sun in a driver’s eyes. There’s no atmosphere, and the geology is basically dead. Maybe that’s why, decades after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked there, we have clearer maps of Mars than of our nearest neighbor. But now, NASA needs to know more. The agency plans to return astronauts to the lunar surface in 12 years as the first step in establishing a permanent outpost. The base could be an ideal location for manufacturing processes best suited for low gravity, or for helium-3 mining to fuel future fusion reactors. The agency also sees the moon as the perfect construction site and launchpad for eventual manned journeys to Mars. Water is a key ingredient in these grand schemes, because it can be broken down into oxygen for lunar bases and fuel for rockets. In 1998 a probe called Lunar Prospector spotted tantalizing signs of hydrogen in craters at the lunar poles. But no one’s sure if the hydrogen is the chemical signature of water ice, possibly deposited by comets and meteors.

NASA’s first step toward a moon base is the $491 million Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), a satellite designed to map the terrain in intimate detail. In January 2006, after several years of development, LRO engineers decided to use a larger Atlas V to launch LRO, creating 2200 pounds of extra cargo capacity. The agency put out the word to its 10 research centers: What can you come up with to make use of that space—before the earliest LRO launch window in October 2008? Winning a Free Ride. Dan Andrews, a rangy, plain-spoken Silicon Valley native with 21 years at NASA, reacted quickly to the call for proposals. He and other engineers from Ames Research Center near San Jose, Calif., formed what they called the Blue Ice team and met in an old Navy dorm, hoping to dream up a project that would probe the polar craters for water. There was more at stake than proving water ice existed on the moon: “It was to get back in the game,” Andrews says. Ames’s aging wind tunnels and battleship-gray buildings in Silicon Valley, once hotbeds of aeronautical research, sit in the technological shadow of nearby Google and eBay. NASA has cut its programs and threatened it with closure. Now, Ames had a shot at retooling itself as a shop for fast, cheap missions. Andrews had no budget for an expensive lander to seek water, and conditions in the eternally dark polar craters would kill rovers, with temperatures close to minus 300 F. Instead, Blue Ice and its partners at Northrop Grumman came up with a concept to bring the lunar floor out in the open. A bare-bones spacecraft, dubbed the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), would sit beneath the LRO atop the Atlas rocket. After launch, with the LRO safely bound for the moon, LCROSS would remain attached to the Atlas’s spent upper-stage rocket, known as the Centaur. Using the moon’s gravity, LCROSS would maneuver the Centaur—”like a VW steering a school bus,” Andrews says—into an elongated orbit around Earth that assured a collision with one of the moon’s poles. Nine hours before impact, 24,000 miles above the lunar surface, LCROSS and the Centaur would separate. The 5000-pound Centaur would crash into a dark crater at twice the speed of a rifle bullet, kicking up a plume of debris more than 6 miles high. Four minutes later, the heavily instrumented LCROSS would ride the plume, checking for water and relaying data to Earth until it, too, slammed into the lunar surface.

Just three months after NASA called for proposals, LCROSS beat 18 other submissions from leading centers such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Goddard Space Flight Center. Now all they had to do was assemble a first-of-its-kind spacecraft at a breakneck pace (30 months) for a bargain price ($79 million). “Whatever had to happen,” says Marvin Christensen, acting chief of Ames, “had to happen at warp speed for NASA.”  The Cheap Frontier. The constraints imposed on the mission created skeptics. “Early on, there were a lot of stakeholders who assumed that we’d bust—either bust schedule or bust cost,” says Andrews, relaxed in his office in jeans and a polo shirt. A paper model of LCROSS he built hangs on the wall, along with a congratulatory banner from his children. “If people are thinking that there’s no way you can succeed, you almost can’t lose,” he says. Andrews and his crew know the mission doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to work. Next door to Andrews’s office, deputy LCROSS manager John Marmie has a stack of Larry the Cable Guy hats that read “Git-R-Done,” which has become something of a mantra for the project. LCROSS is a low-priority, high-risk project, what NASA calls a “Class D” mission with “medium or significant risk of not achieving mission success.” In other words, the agency was willing to gamble, so Andrews and his team could fly with fewer backup systems and less testing. “We’re going to do a lot of this as we go on to the moon,” says Scott “Doc” Horowitz, a former astronaut who until last year ran NASA’s exploration division, where he gave LCROSS the green light. “I could triple the cost of the project to try to guarantee success, or I could do three projects and, even if one fails, I get more done.” Since engineering precision hardware would break the budget, the LCROSS team had to make existing components work together. The spacecraft’s internal fuel tank is left over from a communications satellite. The avionics are copied from the LRO. The skeleton, an aluminum ring that looks like a section of sewer pipe with six portholes, is from an Air Force project designed to release multiple satellites from a single rocket. Andrews and company turned the ring into their spacecraft with parts—solar panel, instruments, batteries—plugged into the ring’s ports. LCROSS could spawn similar projects at Northrop. “I call it a Frankensat strategy,” says Stephen Hixson, vice president of advanced concepts. “I’m not saying equipment could come from Home Depot, but pretty close.” Typically, 10 to 15 percent of a spacecraft’s budget goes into instruments; on LCROSS, it’s roughly 3 percent, or $2 million.

When Anthony Colaprete, NASA’s lead scientist for the mission, went to big aerospace companies for instruments, they laughed at his budget.

So he turned to small outfits instead. He bought near-infrared spectrometers from a company that makes them for breweries to test the alcohol content of beer on assembly lines. He resisted agency reviewers who wanted him to put an anodized coating on the aluminum storage boxes. “One of their arguments was, ‘It’s not very expensive—just do it,'” he says. “I’m like, ‘Well, I want to save that $1000. I’m very cheap.'” The satellite’s last moments will be tracked by the LRO, the Hubble Space Telescope and telescopes on Earth. The impact should also be visible to amateurs in the western United States using modest telescopes. Andrews’s team will track its spacecraft from mission control at Ames: Simple tables stacked with personal computers. Although the team’s creation will die violently, morale is high. “People are invigorated,” Andrews says. “They’re leaving a little piece of themselves on the moon.”  The mission to find water ice on the moon is being conducted by a small, six-sided monitoring spacecraft that is attached to an empty 5000-pound rocket-fuel tank called the Centaur. The spacecraft guides the tank through several elongated Earth orbits before heading to the moon, arriving three to four months after launch. The spacecraft releases the Centaur, sending it thruster-first toward a crater at the lunar pole, and then slows down. About 4 minutes later, the monitoring craft follows the same kamikaze trajectory. A light-sensitive instrument on the spacecraft helps NASA determine details of the composition of Centaur’s target by measuring any flash from the vaporization of lunar material. The Centaur’s death dive creates a 16-ft.-deep crater and kicks up a 6-mile-high debris cloud. The monitor descends into this plume, using infrared spectrometers and video cameras to determine how much—if any—water ice exists. The spacecraft relays its findings to Earth until it, too, crashes. Researchers in California get results within minutes of the first impact.   news from &

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