America Can, Should, Must, And Will Blow Up The Moon This Friday


What good is a space program if you can’t use it to blow something up occasionally?

NASA will remind us of this timeless lesson on Friday, when their LCROSS satellite bombs the moon to see if there’s water hidden below the lunar surface:

LCROSS launched with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on June 18, 2009 at 2:32 p.m. PDT. The LCROSS shepherding spacecraft and the Atlas V’s Centaur upper stage rocket executed a fly-by of the moon on June 23, 2009 and entered into an elongated Earth orbit to position LCROSS for impact on a lunar pole. On final approach, the shepherding spacecraft and Centaur will separate. The Centaur will act as a heavy impactor to create a debris plume that will rise above the lunar surface. Projected impact at the lunar South Pole is currently: Oct 9, 2009 at 4:30 a.m. PDT. Following four minutes behind, the shepherding spacecraft will fly through the debris plume, collecting and relaying data back to Earth before impacting the lunar surface and creating a second debris plume.

Translation: “We’re gonna shoot a missile into the Moon, then fly through the dust cloud and see what we kicked up.”

At first glance, that may sound like a silly idea. But Popular Mechanics offers a pretty convincing list of reasons why it’s actually a pretty good one:

LCROSS is a Class D mission, denoting one with the highest risk of failure. Once-in-a-lifetime missions and those with human passengers are considered Class A missions, and carry a high cost in time and money to ensure that the equipment won’t fail. The extra testing, custom-built gear and redundant equipment drives up costs to levels that give even members of Congress pause. NASA could launch more risky missions like LCROSS instead of just a handful of marquee ones, and reap more rewards even if some fail.

The cost of LCROSS is about $79 million–cheap in the spaceflight world–and its planners delivered it on budget and on time…

LCROSS has a specific scientific mission and a payoff that is almost immediate. In 1998 a probe called Lunar Prospector spotted tantalizing signs of hydrogen in craters at the lunar poles. But no one’s entirely sure if the hydrogen is the chemical signature of water ice, possibly deposited by comets and meteors. LCROSS should not only confirm that water-ice is on the moon, but in what quantities…

LCROSS will create a 6-foot-deep crater inside another crater on the south pole. The moon has suffered much worse from the cosmos, and this latest gouge pales in comparison…

There is nothing pristine about the moon. It’s lifeless surface is cluttered with spent probes, landing craft, seismic sensors and moon buggies. Every time an Apollo mission took off, the crew threw out all unneeded equipment to save weight on the return. The idea that the moon will somehow be ruined by LCROSS is bizarre.

While the idea of blowing up the moon may be new to NASA and Popular Mechanics, HBO’s Mr. Show was waaaaay ahead of them:

If you want to watch LCROSS smash into the moon, you can drag a telescope into your backyard — you’ll need a 10-inch telescope or larger to see the impact — or, for the less geekily inclined, NASA will be Webcasting it live starting at 6:15 AM Eastern time Friday.