NASA plans to literally shoot the moon Oct. 9 when the space agency smashes not one, but two spacecrafts traveling more than 5,000 miles per hour into a crater on the lunar surface. The resulting six-mile-high dust plume will be photographed by NASA as it explores the possibility of water under the moon's surface.
NASA launched an Atlas V rocket to the moon June 18 with two satellites riding on top: The LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter) and the LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Spacecraft). The LRO is in orbit 31 miles above the moon's surface, mapping the moon in high resolution for future landing sites and gathering crucial data on the lunar environment that will help astronauts prepare for long-duration lunar expeditions.
The LCROSS has been orbiting the moon with the empty two-and-a-half ton upper stage of the Atlas rocket (Centaur) still attached. The two vehicles will separate approximately five hours before impact at a height of 54,059 miles above the moon. At impact, the Centaur will be traveling at approximately 1.55 miles per second. The LCROSS impact will follow four minutes later.
The Centaur's impact will excavate more than 350 metric tons of lunar material and create a crater 66 feet in diameter to a depth of 13 feet. Most of the material in the Centaur debris plume will remain at altitudes below 6.2 miles. LCROSS' impact will excavate an estimated 150 metric tons, with a crater 46 feet in diameter to a depth of six feet.
The Centaur and LCROSS are aiming for the Cabeus crater near the moon's south pole. The sun never rises above certain crater rims at the lunar pole and some crater floors may not have seen sunlight for billions of years. With temperatures estimated to be near minus 328 degrees Fahrenheit, these craters can "cold trap" or capture most volatiles or water ice.
"If there's water there, or anything else interesting, we'll find it," Tony Colaprete, of NASA's principal team investigating the crashes, said in a statement.
NASA TV will broadcast the impacts live beginning at 6:15 a.m. EDT. The actual impacts begin at 7:30 a.m. EDT.