NASA selects crater for moon crash

September 11, 2009 7:48:25 PM PDT
Some NASA missions will always be more compelling than others. That is especially the case when a flawless launch provides the prelude to a hopefully perfect crash.

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"Oh it's going to be interesting, no matter what," Dr. Anthony Colaprete said.

Colaprete is principal investigator for NASA's Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, also known as LCROSS, for short.

Next month, the mission will send a spent rocket booster into the moon. By looking at the debris plume, they hope to detect water.

"We don't know how much is there, but estimate as much water on the moon as in Lake Erie," Colaprete said.

But where?

Colaprete has spent two years trying to find the optimal crater -- one near the South Pole, with soft, level ground. His team wants an area that never sees light, where they know hydrogen exists.

Friday, they announced their target---Cabeus A. It is 30 miles wide, three miles deep and about nine degrees from the moon's South Pole. It is dark inside, but the sun shines just above.

"We expect to see stuff that has been in the dark for two billion years," Colaprete said. "It could be water, or hydrocarbons, or something we don't know about."

To find water on the moon would be a game changer at a time when NASA really needs one. Just this week, a presidential commission described the price of a manned return as being too expensive and unrealistic. But, if NASA finds water, there, it could support human life and make rocket fuel for more ambitious missions.

"It would certainly not hurt the interest, let's say that," Colaprete said

Colaprete is a second generation NASA scientist. As a kid, he watched his father design fuel cells for the Apollo moon shots. He knows, well, the politics of running a mission such as this. If it succeeds, he gets the glory of being the man who found water on the moon. If it fails for some reason, he takes the blame.

Colaprete says he is not under pressure to find water, but to conduct proper science.

"There is pressure to make it as relevant as possible," he said. "I can make a great impact and see plenty of ejecta in a place that's dry. That's easy. But, it doesn't answer a lot of questions."

The impact will happen on Friday, October 9 at 4:30 in the morning. With a small telescope, people can see it from Earth. It will start with a flash, then a cloud will form and last about 90 seconds.

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