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

March 6, 2009

Even as the dust settles from China's deliberate March 1 crash of its Chang'e-1 lunar orbiter, NASA scientists are readying their own moon-smashing probe in the hopes of dislodging lunar ice.

The new NASA mission, set to lift off next month, will advance a decades-long tradition of bullying the moon in the name of science—and some experts are urging extra caution for the future.

Known as the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), NASA's craft will gouge a 100-foot-wide (30-meter-wide) hole in the moon, letting fly 220 tons of material.

Such violent impacts are par for the course—the moon is already littered with more than two dozen landers, orbiters, and rovers launched since the 1960s.

But as the new international space race heats up, there's a growing movement to balance scientific ambition with its possible consequences.

"Any time you crash, obviously you destroy some area of lunar surface for any kind of scientific study, and that's not good," said NASA's lunar sample curator Gary Lofgren. (Read more about NASA's lunar sample collection.)

Last year the International Council for Science's committee on space research imposed new documentation requirements to maintain the credibility of future discoveries on the moon.

"You want to be able to understand what materials you brought with you versus what materials would have been deposited there naturally," said Catharine Conley, NASA's planetary-protection officer.

Merely a Flesh Wound?

The SUV-size Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter should launch on April 24 and will send LCROSS hurtling into the moon in early August.

The world's telescopes will be watching for the kicked-up debris, and there's a chance amateur astronomers will be able to see the dust cloud with backyard telescopes.

NASA officials say LCROSS is key to the future of lunar exploration. If the probe confirms reservoirs of ice on the moon, those water sources could support bases that might eventually propel humans to Mars and beyond.

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