Moon Crash, New Maps to Aid Search for Lunar Water

June 17, 2009

The moon is about to get some new visitors—including one on a suicide mission.

A rocket carrying two new NASA probes is slated to lift off from Kennedy Space Center on Thursday, with the first launch opportunity at 5:12 p.m. ET.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) will spend at least a year mapping the moon, including the little-studied lunar poles. (Find out more about lunar exploration.)

LRO will also carry a hitchhiker, an SUV-size probe meant to slam into a shadowy crater near the moon's south pole in search of water ice.

NASA's Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) is to careen into the crater in October, gouging a hole about 15 feet (4.5 meters) deep and 100 feet (30 meters) wide.

Weather permitting, sky-watchers with backyard telescopes will have a clear view of the plume sent up by the impact, which scientists will be watching for signs of water amid the lunar debris.

Ice in the Dark?

LRO carries a suite of instruments for taking detailed temperature readings, for looking at the effects of radiation on the lunar surface, and for scoping out good landing sites for future missions, among other tasks.

"Over the course of a year, we will map with high resolution the entire lunar surface," said Rich Vondrak, LRO project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

The probe will focus mainly on the poles, where permanently shadowed craters might harbor water ice near the surface, making them the most likely places to set up long-term human settlements.

"Those areas of the moon, we actually have very sparse information about," Craig Tooley, LRO project manager at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said during a recent mission briefing.

"For those regions, we have more complete maps of Mars than the moon."

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