Update: On October 9th, 2009 at 4:30AM PDT, the upper stage of the Centaur rocket carrying LCROSS smashed into a crater near the moon’s south pole. The LCROSS spacecraft followed close behind, made measurements and took images of the emerging lunar debris. On November 15th, beds of water ice were discovered at the lunar south pole.
With a price tag of 80 million dollars and a little more than two years in the making, the LCROSS spacecraft will begin its voyage atop an Atlas V rocket. Shortly thereafter it will shepherd the upper stage of the rocket in an orbit around the moon to position it in place for a colossal impact that will kick up a cloud of lunar dust forty miles high. The goal is to see if water exists on the moon and if it does, buried deep beneath the lunar soil, accumulating over millions of years of impacts with comets, it would accelerate our efforts to establish a permanent lunar base. Think of it as a rest stop to refuel (oxygen is an essential ingredient of rocket fuel) before arriving at the next closest planetary body, Mars, a journey which takes roughly 600 days, or 200 times longer than a trip currently to the Moon from Earth.
The avid QUEST viewer may recall that we covered the LCROSS mission in the first episode of QUEST back in 2007. A lot has happened since then, including most notably a change in the launch date which at the time of this post was scheduled for May 20th, 2009. Peter Schultz’s vertical gun range has been outfitted with some dizzyingly high-tech cameras, which are capable of recording at tens of thousands of frames per second (one can record at one million frames per second) to capture the most minute progressions of the lunar impact simulations performed with the thirty-foot tall vertical gun. The suite of nine instruments aboard LCROSS, known as its “payload”, has been mercilessly subjected to thermal, vibration and acoustic testing to make sure they can withstand the effects of launch and the harsh celestial environment. And then there’s the spacecraft itself which we weren’t able to show you in 2007 because the spacecraft still had to be transformed from a set of designs into a compact, robust structure the size of a small car by a team of sharp, young Northrop Grumman engineers. Moreover, amateur astronomers, armed with telescopes ten inches or more, are now being encouraged by NASA to share their images of LCROSS’ historic lunar impact.
One of the most impressive attributes of the LCROSS mission is its rapid turnaround and cost containment which in turn highlight the innovative production model that was essential in making LCROSS a reality. Imagine the spirit of Silicon Valley, with its entrepreneurial zeal and efficiency, fusing with some of the sharpest minds in astrophysics and aeronautical engineering, and you have a glimpse of the unique nature of this small but nimble mission which just may forever change our understanding of the moon and its secrets.