NASA plans to send probe into Moon's surface

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Monday, April 10, 2006

NASA, the United States' space agency, has announced that its next mission to the Moon will not only orbit the Moon, but also send two craft crashing into its surface. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), whose main mission pertains to mapping the Moon, will send a spent fuel stage and an impactor probe towards a crater on the South Pole. The crater seems to be rich in hydrogen and possibly ice.

The mission is part of the run-up to trying to land astronauts back on the Moon, and perhaps keep them there for a longer period of time than the Apollo missions did. Scott Horowitz, NASA's associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, had this to say: "What this mission buys is an early attempt to know what some of the resources we’re going to have ... we know for sure that for human exploration to succeed we’re going to have to essentially live off the land."

Twice before, with the Pentagon's Clementine spacecraft and with the Lunar Prospector, scientists have seen hints of ice on the Moon's surface. It is NASA's hope that this mission may provide better answers to the question of water ice on the Moon. This would prove useful to the agency's goal of a four-astronaut mission to the Moon by 2020.

The Probe

The name of the project is the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS for short. It will launch with the LRO in October 2008 and use its onboard cameras and spectrometers to watch the impact of its upper stage into the surface. The upper stage roughly resembles an SUV in mass - around 4,409 pounds.

The project manager, Daniel Andrews said: "We will create a substantial plume and excavate some sample material, some of which we think will be water ice." After the first crash, LCROSS will attempt to fly through the plume of debris, taking readings and sending them back to Earth. Once done, it will itself crash into a different region of the crater, allowing both the LRO and stations on Earth to observe the plume that it creates.