The spacecraft releases the Centaur,
sending it thruster-first toward a
crater at the lunar pole, and then
slows down. About 4 minutes later, the
monitoring craft follows the same
kamikaze trajectory. A light-sensitive
instrument on the spacecraft helps
NASA determine details of the
composition of Centaur's target by
measuring any flash from the
vaporization of lunar material.
An Atlas 5 rocket thundered to life and streaked into space
Thursday, hurling two NASA spacecraft toward the moon for a $583
million mission to scout out landing sites for future manned
missions and to search for evidence of hidden ice near its
One spacecraft will map the cratered surface
from a perilously low 31-mile-high orbit while the other will
blast out 350 tons of pulverized rock and soil for chemical
analysis, digging a shallow 66-foot-wide crater in a kamikaze
crash visible from Earth.
"First, we want to identify safe landing sites," said project
scientist Rich Vondrak. "Then, we want to search for resources
on the moon. And finally, we want to get better insight into the
space radiation environment and how it may be harmful to
Delayed 20 minutes by nearby thunderstorms, the United Launch
Alliance Atlas 5 rocket's RD-180 first stage engine ignited at
5:32 p.m., slowly pushing the towering rocket away from launch
complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
An Atlas 5 rocket takes off on a NASA
mission to scout out lunar landing sites and to search for
hidden ice near the moon's poles.
(Credit: United Launch Alliance)
Spectacular rocket cam views showed the Atlas 5's fiery
exhaust plume against the cloud-draped limb of planet Earth and
the deep black of space. Another camera showed the nose cone
fairing falling away, exposing the satellite payload to view.
Two firings by the Atlas 5's hydrogen-fueled Centaur second
stage successfully boosted the dual-spacecraft payload onto a
four-day trajectory to the moon.
The $504 million Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, equipped with
seven state-of-the-art cameras and other instruments, will look
for suitable landing sites for future manned missions while
creating the most detailed lunar atlas ever assembled.
The 4,200-pound solar-powered spacecraft also will measure
the solar and cosmic radiation that future lunar explorers will
face and map out the surface topology, mineralogy and chemical
composition of Earth's nearest neighbor. One year will be spent
scouting future landing sites followed by three years of purely
While its cameras will not be able to detect the footprints
of the 12 Apollo astronauts who once walked on the moon, they
will be able to see the landing stages, rovers and other
equipment that were left behind.
LRO's companion, the $79 million Lunar Crater Observation and
Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, faces a much shorter lifetime.
With LRO on its own, LCROSS will maneuver the spent Atlas 5's
Centaur second stage into a looping four-month orbit back around
If all goes well, LCROSS will aim itself and the Centaur back
at the moon, targeting a permanently shadowed crater near the
south pole for a dramatic crash landing October 9. With LRO
looking on from lunar orbit, the 5,000-pound Centaur will hit
the dark surface at some 5,600 mph, blasting out a 66-foot-wide
crater some 13 feet deep.
The debris excavated by the impact will be blown high above
the lunar surface, some of it above the crater's rim and into
sunlight for the first time in 2 billion years or more.
LCROSS, following close behind the Centaur on a virtually
identical course, will fly through the debris cloud, spending
four precious minutes studying the composition of the material
and looking for signs of water ice with a suite of nine
Then it, too, will crash to the moon less than 2 miles away
after dutifully transmitting its data back to Earth. The Hubble
Space Telescope will monitor the impact, as will amateur and
professional astronomers in the Western hemisphere, looking for
the flash that will signal the Centaur's demise.
The LRO/LCROSS mission is NASA's first trip to the moon since
the more modest Lunar Prospector was launched in 1998. The new
missions are part of NASA's post-Columbia program to send
astronauts back to the moon to establish a permanent
Antarctica-style research station starting around 2020.
The Bush administration approved the new plan and President
Obama endorsed the resumption of moon flights during his
But earlier this year, the White House Office of Management
and Budget cut $3.1 billion from NASA's projected budgets
through 2013--money needed to begin development of a heavy-life
moon rocket--and the president ordered an independent
re-assessment of NASA's long-range goals.
The review panel held its first public hearing Wednesday and
its final report is expected by the end of the summer.
Regardless of the ultimate fate of NASA's manned moon
program, the two spacecraft launched Thursday promise to greatly
advance understanding of the moon's history and evolution, along
with making the first serious attempt to identify favorable
landing sites for future long-duration visits.
A 'rocket cam' view of the Atlas 5's
first stage exhaust plume during the climb to space.
(Credit: NASA TV)
Separating from the LCROSS/Centaur shortly after launch, LRO
will fly to the moon on its own. After a long rocket firing
Tuesday morning to brake into an elliptical orbit, engineers
will spend up to two months checking out and calibrating the
spacecraft's instruments and maneuvering it into a circular
For comparison, the orbits used by Apollo command modules
were about 70 miles high.
"As its name says, LRO is all about doing reconnaissance at
the moon," said Craig Tooley, the mission's project manager at
Goddard. "Reconnaissance, specifically, to bring us back the
data and the information we need to plan and execute the human
return to the moon.
"An inevitable question I get is 'why do we need LRO? Haven't
we done this?' And, indeed, of course, we've been to the moon.
But when we went to the moon for Apollo, we went to the
equatorial regions and we intentionally planned to not stay for
And even at the onset of our renewed commitment to send human
beings to the moon back in 2004, we knew then if we were going
to go to the moon with the more ambitious goals we have now of
staying longer and perhaps establishing outposts, we were going
to go to a different place."
Scientists and engineers thinking about future outposts on
the moon are focused on the polar regions, where areas in
permanent sunlight offer unlimited solar power. Conversely,
permanently shadowed craters nearby offer the prospect of ice
deposits and along with them, a source of water, oxygen and
hydrogen rocket fuel.
"We actually have much better maps of Mars than we have of
our own moon's polar regions," Tooley said. "So the job of
filling out that information set, making that atlas complete for
planning safe and fruitful return to the moon, that job fell to
The LCROSS mission is much more tightly focused.
Earlier lunar probes detected indirect evidence of water ice
in dark polar regions. Scientists believe ice could indeed be
trapped in polar craters that never see sunlight, brought in by
comet impacts over the billions of years since the moon's
The Centaur impact is designed to blast out material in the
top few feet of a shadowed crater's floor where ice deposits are
"There's data out there which could show it's potentially ice
rinks," said LCROSS project manager Dan Andrews. "There's data
out there that shows it's blocky. There's data out there that
could support the fact that there might not be water ice there,"
said Dan Andrews, the LCROSS project manager. "So that
illustrates the importance of this mission. Let's go see what it
"The benefit of having water ice there is self-evident. The
availability of water right there on the moon, availability of
producing oxygen, oxidizer for rocket fuel for other missions,
it's very, very interesting if water ice is indeed there."
The aim is to see whether any traces of water will be revealed by
the disruption caused to the planet's surface. Nasa will analyse the
space cloud caused by the explosion for any sign of water or vapour.
Scientists expect the impact to blast out a huge cloud of dust, gas
and vaporized water ice at least 6 miles high - making it visible from