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After Surviving Lunar Eclipse, NASA Spacecraft Crashes Into Moon

By Brandon Mercer
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Liftoff of the LADEE spacecraft at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility on September 6, 2013. The spacecraft was built at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View. (NASA TV)

Liftoff of the LADEE spacecraft at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility on September 6, 2013. The spacecraft was built at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View. (NASA TV)

MOFFETT FIELD (CBS SF) — NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) crashed into the surface of the moon late Thursday night, but controllers are thrilled about the impact after a successful mission studying what little atmosphere the moon has.

The lunar satellite, about the size of a large refrigerator, was traveling at 3,600 miles per hour just a few thousand feet over the surface as its orbit decayed, pulling it finally into an impact between 9:30 and 10:22 p.m. Pacific time, but it was a spectacular planned end to the mission.

Rick Elphic, LADEE project scientist at Ames said the some of the craft’s material may have vaporized on impact, “There’s nothing gentle about impact at these speeds – it’s just a question of whether LADEE made a localized craterlet on a hillside or scattered debris across a flat area. It will be interesting to see what kind of feature LADEE has created.”

Mission controllers will now use a lunar orbiter to photograph the impact site.

“It’s bittersweet knowing we have received the final transmission from the LADEE spacecraft after spending years building it in-house at Ames, and then being in constant contact as it circled the moon for the last several months,” said Butler Hine, LADEE project manager at Ames.

The craft was launched in 2013, and gathered scientific data for far longer than its planned 100-day primary phase.

A big success was surviving the total lunar eclipse or “blood moon”, which plunged the spacecraft into darkness, cutting off its solar power source, and exposing it to extremely low temperatures.

One of the key technologies LADEE tested was use of laser communication instead of the standard radio transmissions.  While the signals travel at the same speed, the laser could transmit more data at a time, hitting 622 megabits per second downloads, which is not bad even for earth data transfers, considering it went 239,000 miles.  NASA reports upload rates of 20 Mbps.

LADEE’s primary mission was to study the moon’s atmosphere, whatever little bit of atmosphere it could find.  Scientists also wanted to know whether electrically charged lunar dust creates the pre-sunrise glow that Apollo astronauts had observed.

 

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