In its search for water on the moon, NASA slammed not one, but two, spacecraft into a deep, dark crater on the lunar south pole this morning.
It was a precision operation. NASA successfully nailed a target about 230,000 miles from Earth -- twice. The Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, known as LCROSS, separated into two sections last night. Its empty rocket hull, weighing in at more than 2 tons, was the first of the two pieces to slam into the lunar surface, at 7:31 a.m. Eastern time. Four minutes later, the rest of the space probe shot through the miles-high plume of debris kicked up by the first impact, grabbed data about the matter, then crashed into the lunar surface.
Effectively, it was a one-two punch designed to kick up what scientists believe is water ice hiding in the bottom of a permanently dark crater. Since NASA is hopeful that it will one day be able to create a viable human outpost on the moon, it would be helpful if the people there had access to water instead of having to haul it up from Earth.
NASA said it will issue a report on its initial analysis of the probe at 10 a.m. Eastern time today.
NASA promised live images of the impact and the resulting debris plume, but the live images on NASA TV disappeared moments before impact.
The LCROSS spacecraft, which blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 18, went aloft with a companion satellite, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. As the Atlas V rocket carrying them lifted off, a NASA spokesman called it "NASA's first step in a lasting return to the moon."
NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been in orbit around the moon since late June, was 50 kilometers above the moon's surface during this morning's impact. The orbiter is expected to send its own analysis of the debris plume back to Earth later this morning.
The LCROSS spacecraft was heavily loaded with scientific gear. According to NASA, its payload consisted of two near-infrared spectrometers, a visible light spectrometer, two mid-infrared cameras, two near-infrared cameras, a visible camera and a visible radiometer. The instruments were selected to provide mission scientists with multiple views of the debris created by the hull's initial impact.
Before it crashed into the moon, LCROSS was transmitting data back to NASA mission control at 1.5Mbit/sec., NASA noted this morning.