Moon-Smashing Probes: Are the Data Worth the Damage?

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As for litter, most of the LCROSS probe will be vaporized on impact, said NASA spokesperson Grey Hautaluoma, and the craft's fuel will be vented prior to impact to avoid contaminating data on the debris cloud.

Worth the Price

According to lunar-sample curator Lofgren, any damages inflicted on the moon so far have been a small price to pay for decades of lunar science.

Currently spacecraft remains occupy only a small portion of the lunar surface, he said.

What's more, meteors usually crash at about 15 miles (25 kilometers) a second, wreaking havoc on the lunar surface. For the most part, human-caused impacts hit at a tenth of that speed.

"They're just going to throw stuff around," he said. "It's not vaporizing materials. It's not melting rocks."

And because the moon has no atmosphere and no wind, the debris won't move around and contaminate other places, he said.

"They're just pieces of metal sitting on the surface."

Planetary protection officer Conley noted that contamination protections for the barren moon—where no known life could survive—will never be as stringent as they are for potentially habitable places like Mars.

NASA's Mars-bound spacecraft are meticulously sterilized, and plans are already being developed for the medical-grade quarantine that will await any Martian samples that could one day return to Earth.

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