First Images of LCROSS Centaur Impact Plume Released

The lunar dust plume as seen 15 seconds after Centaur impact. The size of the plume was approximately 6-8 km wide at this time (NASA)
The lunar dust plume as seen 15 seconds after Centaur impact. The size of the plume was approximately 6-8 km wide at this time (NASA)

Rising a mile high and up to 5 miles wide, the impact plume of the spent Centaur rocket was observed by the NASA LCROSS shepherding probe before it travelled through the cloud of dust and crashed 4 minutes later.

The lack of an observed dust plume has been the cause of much confusion to people who watched the events unfold in the early hours of October 9th. NASA publicised the impact event as if it was going to be an explosion of dust (and possibly ice), observable from telescopes on Earth. To say the mission finale was a disappointment is an understatement.

Following the impact, NASA responded by saying that although infrared images proved the Centaur crashed on target (and a 20 meter-wide crater was created), the lack of an accompanying plume could mean that the mass hit the side of a crater (therefore blasting debris at an angle), or it hit a region devoid of dust and water ice, or the plume was simply less obvious than expected. Now that NASA has released new images of the impact, it would appear the latter may be the case; the plume was just less spectacular than the promo videos depicted.

Nine instruments on board LCROSS captured impact sequence, but until now it was unknown whether an impact plume occurred. Now NASA has confirmed that an impact flash, plume and crater were all generated.

There is a clear indication of a plume of vapor and fine debris,” said Anthony Colaprete, LCROSS principal investigator. “Within the range of model predictions we made, the ejecta brightness appears to be at the low end of our predictions and this may be a clue to the properties of the material the Centaur impacted.”

So the number-crunching continues as we wait to find out whether water was contained within that plume. However, judging by the faint cloud of ejecta, I’m thinking dreams of a H2O reservoir in Cabeus crater might be short lived.

Source: NASA, LA Times. A special thanks to @jamerz3294 for the tip!

Did NASA “Bomb” the Moon? Kinda

NASA possesses Weapons of Moon Destruction, obviously.

There’s been a lot of criticism concerning the media’s ability to report science recently. After all, what is “good” science reporting? The tabloid press is well known for hyping up scientific endeavour, and although some news outlets deliberately fill their columns with hyperbole, it doesn’t necessarily mean the science is being misrepresented, it just means the column in question is making a mountain out of a molehill.

Take Friday morning’s NASA LCROSS impact with the Moon. Those of us that were following the action on the various news outlets and online feeds were astonished by the sheer amount of fear, misinformation, disinformation and general weirdness that was being banded about. To be honest, I was shocked.

[I actually have a theory about one of the reasons why LCROSS was a particular target for many conspiracy wingnuts and doomsday woo, but I’ll save that for another article I’ll be writing shortly.]

Although a lot of the stuff was total silliness (i.e. the Moon feels pain, LCROSS might knock the Moon off it’s axis, many moonpeople might die etc. etc.), many worried individuals were concerned by the reports from the mainstream press. Let’s have a look at one of the claims being disseminated by a wide variety of news outlets in the run-up to, and the days following, LCROSS: The Moon was being “bombed” by NASA.

Did NASA “bomb” the Moon or not?

A huge number of people have a problem with the word “bomb” when connected with the LCROSS mission (I’m not fond of the description either). Could this one word be indicative of bad journalism? For the scientifically-minded, “bomb” doesn’t sound very scientific and would rather use “impactor.” For the non-specialist, “bomb” conjures thoughts of war, violence and Al Qaeda.

Is it just creative writing? Is it an inaccurate term? Is it wrong? First off, let’s look at the definition of “a bomb.”

bomb. n. An explosive weapon detonated by impact, proximity to an object, a timing mechanism, or other means.

The LCROSS Centaur was certainly not manufactured as a conventional weapon (as in, it didn’t carry explosives and couldn’t “detonate”), but just by its mass, could it cause an explosion like a bomb? In the case of the above definition, I’m referring to the “or other means” part.

Energy is energy

The Centaur was empty of propellent when it was sent careening toward the lunar south pole, but it still had a mass of 2366 kg (the size of an SUV). At the time of impact, it was travelling at a velocity of 2.5 km/s (2500 m/s). From this information alone, we can calculate the kinetic energy of Centaur at the moment it slammed into the lunar surface.

Ekinetic = 1/2 mv2 = 1/2 × 2366 (kg) × 25002 (m/s) = 7.4×109 Joules

This is the total energy the Centaur had when it was speeding toward the Moon, and according to basic physics energy is always conserved. So, when the Centaur ate Moon dust, where did this energy go?

We know energy wasn’t lost through the production of sound waves, as there’s no atmosphere on the Moon — In space, no one can hear your rocket go *bang* (although seismic waves would have been generated, propagating through the Moon’s surface). Also, lots of chunks of rock (from the surface) and shards of metal (from the Centaur) would have been ejected from the crater, each piece carrying a little piece of that kinetic energy away from the impact (much like very high-energy shrapnel). A lot of rock was displaced too, creating a crater 20 meters in diameter and 3 meters deep. Much of the kinetic energy will have also been converted to heat and light (the “flash” of the impact was captured by the LCROSS infrared camera).

What with all this heat, light and shrapnel, the Centaur impact sure is sounding like an exploding bomb. If you convert the 7.4×109 Joules into units more synonymous with weaponry, we find that the energy released during the Centaur impact was the equivalent of 1.8 tonnes of TNT exploding. That’s the size of a small bunker-busting bomb.

What’s more, kinetic weapons are a well-known method to take out orbiting satellites, so this concept isn’t a new one.

As much as it pains me, using an inflammatory statement like “NASA Bombed The Moon” is a correct analysis of the effects of the Centaur dead-weight hitting the Moon. However, the press milked “the Moon bombing” way beyond what I’d consider to be reasonable, taking full advantage of the violent connotations associated with this incredible NASA mission to probe for water on the Moon.

I think that people are apprehensive about it because it seems violent or crude, but it’s very economical.” –Tony Colaprete, principal investigator for LCROSS (Feb. 2008)

What REALLY Happened to the LCROSS Centaur?

<conspiracy mode>

In the early hours of Friday morning at 4:31am, the spent Centaur rocket from the NASA LCROSS mission slammed into the surface of the south pole of the moon. What was the point in that?

Well, NASA was hoping that the tumbling chunk of metal the size of a small bus would kick up a huge plume of dust. Following 4 minutes behind was the shepherding LCROSS spacecraft, also on a kamikaze dive, hoping to drop through the plume, sensitive instruments ready to analyse the dust for water.

I know what you’re thinking: what right does NASA have to BOMB the Moon? They have NO RIGHT AT ALL!!

It turns out that they are actually waging a top secret war against the population of peaceful extraterrestrials that live on the far side of the Moon. This “experiment” was in fact a reckless attack against a superior alien civilization, intended to strike fear into the hearts of the aliens.

If you were to believe the NASA promo video of the event, this should have been spectacular, vast quantities of lunar regolith blasting into space… it should have been akin to the biggest Fourth of July firework detonating. This “shock and awe” tactic is typical of the US space agency. The huge mass of the Centaur (a little under 2400kg), combined with its break-neck speed (1.5 miles per second) should have unleashed the equivalent energy of a tonne of TNT exploding. However, what NASA didn’t tell us was that Centaur was also carrying plutonium, so the explosion should have been a LOT bigger, easily visible to the naked eye.

But what did we see? Nothing. What did NASA see? Nothing. So what happened? Well, the answer to that is a little more compelling than what NASA is telling us.

Yes, they can show us images of a meagre “flash” as the Centaur hit inside a lunar crater, but I don’t think Centaur hit the Moon at all… the Centaur rocket was swallowed by the Moon.

Don’t believe me? Moments before impact, NASA’s lunar satellite — the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) — was approaching the location and it took this photo. What you see here will shock you. It will astound you. And what’s more, it’s REAL.

Aliens DO live on the Moon, and they were prepared for the NASA bombing…

lcross-conspiracy

</conspiracy mode>

I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist. In the run-up to the LCROSS impact, the sheer amount of crazy conspiracy theories hit fever-pitch (I blogged about it on Space Disco 2 hours before impact). Some of my favourite theories involved alien civilizations on the lunar surface, plutonium on LCROSS (to destroy the Moon), the “fact” that it was all just a publicity stunt and the LCROSS mission didn’t exist at all… and the strange theory that the Moon feels pain.

Yawn.

A polite message to the conspiracy theorists: Come on people, stop making stuff up and understand the real science. You might find reality more interesting than your twisted fantasies.

Image: The Sarlacc pit monster from Star Wars, Copernicus lunar crater and the LCROSS Centaur rocket. Photoshopping: Me.

Oops… I really geeked out this time, didn’t I.

Triton’s Ice Won’t Mix

Triton_sm

Triton, Neptune’s largest moon, hasn’t been studied in detail since Voyager 2 did a flyby in 1989. That was until a team headed by Will Grundy, a Lowell Observatory planetary scientist, did a 10-year study into the distribution of the moon’s ices.

Soon to be published in the journal Icarus, the team has found that concentrations of nitrogen and carbon monoxide mix together and form a covering of ice on the Neptune-facing side of Triton. This is in contrast to the methane content of the atmosphere. For some reason, methane is concentrated on the non-facing Neptune hemisphere of the moon. It appears that methane doesn’t like to mix with the other volatile ices.

This is in stark contrast to the non-volatile ices, such as water and carbon dioxide. Both appear to have a homogeneous distribution, regardless of phase or geographical location.

These are incredible observations of a moon that was once a Kuiper Belt Object. However, the infrared analysis carried out on Triton could be a test-run before observations are carried out on other, more exotic, targets.

This type of long-term, detailed analysis would be equally valuable for small icy planets like Pluto, Eris, and Makemake, all of which are similar to Triton in having volatile ices like methane and nitrogen on their surfaces,” said Grundy. “We have been monitoring Pluto’s spectrum in parallel with that of Triton, but Eris and Makemake are quite a bit fainter. It is hard to get time on large telescopes to monitor them year after year. We expect that Lowell Observatory’s Discovery Channel Telescope will play a valuable role in this type of research when it comes on line.”

Source: Space Disco, Discovery Channel (yeah, I’m referencing myself), Lowell Observatory

Moon Water, Confirmed

moon-water

The biggest factor hanging over human settlement of other worlds is the question of water. We need it to drink, we need it to cultivate food, we need it for fuel (indeed, we need it for the first lunar microbrewery); pretty much every human activity requires water. Supplies of water could be ferried from Earth to the Moon, but that would be prohibitively expensive and ultimately futile. For us to live on the Moon or further afield, H2O needs to already be there.

Ever since the Apollo lunar landings when samples of rock were transported to Earth we’ve been searching for the mere hint of this life-giving molecule. There have been indications that the lunar regolith may indeed contain trace amounts of the stuff, but on the whole, scientific endeavour has yet to return evidence of any large supply of water that could sustain a colony.

Until today.

Up until now, scientists haven’t been able to seriously entertain the thought of water on or near the surface of the Moon, apart from in the depths of the darkest impact craters. However, data from the recently deceased Indian Chandrayaan-1 mission has supported data taken by the Cassini probe (when it flew past the Moon in 1999 on its way to Saturn) and NASA’s Deep Impact probe (which made several infrared observations of the lunar surface during Earth-Moon flybys on its way to the 2010 rendezvous with Comet 103P/Hartley 2). Both Cassini and Deep Impact found the signature of water and hydroxyl, and now, a NASA instrument on board Chandrayaan-1 reinforces these earlier findings.

The NASA-built Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) on board the Indian satellite detected wavelengths of light reflected off the surface that indicated hydrogen and oxygen molecules. This is convincing evidence that water is either at, or near, the lunar surface. As with the previous measurements, the water signal gets stronger nearer the lunar poles.

So what does this mean for the future of manned space exploration? Although water has been detected, this doesn’t mean there are huge icy lakes for us to pitch a Moon base and pump out the water. In actuality, the signal indicates water, but there is less water than what is found in the sand of the Earth’s deserts (you can pack away the drinking straws now).

It’s still pretty damn dry, drier than anything we have here. But we’ve found this dynamic, ongoing process and the moon was supposedly dead,” University of Maryland senior research scientist Jessica Sunshine told Discovery News. “This is a real paradigm shift.”

If there are widespread water deposits (despite the low concentrations), even in regions constantly bathed in sunlight, there is huge potential for water deposits in those mysterious, frozen craters. Interestingly, these measurements indicate that the water may not have just been deposited there by comets; the interaction between the solar wind and the existing lunar mineralogy could be a mechanism by which lunar ice is constantly being formed.

Every place on the moon, at some point during the lunar day, though not necessarily at all times, has water and OH [hydroxyl],” Sunshine said.

We may see self-sufficient lunar colonies yet. But the saying “getting blood out of a stone” should probably be replaced with “getting water out of the lunar regolith”

Next up is NASA’s LCROSS mission that is scheduled to impact a crater in the south pole on October 9th. Analysis from the impact plume will supplement this positive Chandrayaan-1 result, hopefully revealing yet more water in this frozen region.

Sources: Discovery News, Space.com, Times.co.uk

Chandrayaan-1 Didn’t Fail. It Fried

chandrayaan

As we all know by now, India’s first mission to the Moon (Chandrayaan-1) lost contact with mission control over a week ago. Very quickly, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) declared that the mission was unrecoverable, and after a 10-month stint, it was curtains for India’s dรฉbut lunar jaunt.

Oh well, these things happen in space.

But not everyone sees it that way. Almost immediately, the media started calling Chandrayaan-1 a “failure.” The ISRO issued press releases saying that 95% of the mission objectives had been completed, so it couldn’t be considered a “failure.”

During the Al Jazeera Inside Story show I was invited to appear on shortly after contact was lost with the satellite, I mentioned that it isn’t easy to put stuff into space. Although the ISRO has been operational for the best part of 40 years, getting a probe to the moon, dropping an impactor onto the surface and surviving for 10 months wasn’t an easy thing to do by any means. How could the mission possibly be a failure? More of a partial success.

Some questions will obviously hover over the reasons for the mishap, but it doesn’t seem to be holding India back as they prepare Chandrayaan-2.

So what did happen? It would appear that some more details are surfacing about the satellite’s demise. The Indian press are pointing to a decision by the ISRO to increase the orbit of Chandrayaan-1 from 100km to 200km in May this year for scientific reasons. In actuality, the radiation shielding installed on the craft was insufficient, forcing mission control to increase the orbit away from the Moon.

And now it looks like the same problem — lack of decent radiation shielding — fried the communication computers on board the satellite, probably the root cause of the blackout. In any case, international specialists will meet in Bangalore today to shed some light on why Chandrayaan-1 disappeared and to evaluate its performance.

Lost In Space: India’s Chandrayaan-1 Moon Mission Goes Silent

A miniature replica of the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft (V. Ganesan/The Hindu)

Just as one mission begins (Discovery’s STS-128), another ends. Unfortunately, only 10 months after launch, the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) lunar satellite Chandrayaan-1 has mysteriously ceased communication with mission control. ISRO officials have declared that the mission has ended, 14 months earlier than planned.

On Saturday, at 1:30am local time, the ISRO lost communications, and according to a spokesman, the agency is no longer in control of the spacecraft. Chandrayaan-1 data was being received by a monitoring unit in the southern city of Bangalore. There is currently no explanation for the failure.

The mission had completed 3,400 orbits of the Moon and everything seemed to be operational for the next few thousand orbits. The ambitious mission was launched by the fledgling space agency to allow India to stake a claim over lunar exploration with the future hope of exploiting the Moon’s natural resources (such as the abundance of uranium). This mission put India into a very exclusive club of only five international space agencies that had sent missions to the Moon before (NASA, JAXA, ESA, ROSCOSMOS and the CNSA).

This isn’t the first problem the satellite had suffered, however. In May, the probe lost a critical instrument called a star sensor, and then in July, the craft overheated. Fortunately, further damage to the rest of the satellite was averted by ground controllers.

Despite the obviously upsetting news about the loss of the $80 million piece of ISRO hardware, officials are surprisingly upbeat about the whole thing.

The mission is definitely over. We have lost contact with the spacecraft,” Project Director M. Annadurai said. “It [Chandrayaan-1] has done its job technically… 100 per cent. Scientifically also, it has done almost 90-95 percent of its job.”

Personally, I think the ISRO did a superb job at developing Chandrayaan-1 mission, and simply getting the thing into lunar orbit is an incredible feat. Another aspect I was impressed with was the ground controllers’ ability to deal with problems in-flight and fix them accordingly. This can only help to strengthen India’s ability when launching future missions to the Moon.

Sources: The Hindu, New York Times

Banff Ground Squirrel Witnessed Apollo 11 Landing

Buzz Aldrin poses for Armstrong's camera in 1969. Little did the astronauts realize... they were being watched... (NASA/NatGeo/Ian O'Neill)
Buzz Aldrin poses for Armstrong's camera in 1969. Little did the astronauts realize... they were being watched... (NASA/NatGeo/Ian O'Neill)

Ever wonder why some of the Apollo lunar landing shots are a little out of focus? Ever wonder why chunks of photographs from the Moon have been cut out, leaving a a little squirrel-like shape behind?

Wonder no more, even the Moon has a colony of ground squirrels (plus mini-space helmets, of course), ready to pop out of hiding when they feel the vibration of lunar lander thrusters, astronaut footsteps, and the whine of focusing cameras. This is one Moon conspiracy solved, once and for all!

Don’t worry, I haven’t lost it quite yet, I’ve just been playing with Photoshop. This is in response to the wonderful National Geographic photograph of a curious ground squirrel that managed to pose for the perfect holiday snap in Canada’s Banff National Park. Now the image is going viral, with little squirrel cut-outs appearing in a huge range of photos and videos.

So here’s my effort. The Banff Lunar Squirrel!

Celebrating Apollo 11

73-percent

We’re currently having loads of fun over at Discovery Space, celebrating mankind’s biggest space achievement: when Apollo 11 landed on the moon 40 years ago. On July 20th 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history while Michael Collins orbited overhead. This was a key moment in space exploration that was followed by another 5 lunar landings until 1972. Unfortunately, that was it and the Apollo Program was gradually wound down…

However, the current plan is to get astronauts back to the moon by 2020, but how are we going to do it? Actually, the answer is far from clear-cut, and although NASA is pushing ahead with the development of Constellation, outspoken space advocates, such as Buzz Aldrin, are presenting some alternatives.

But in an interesting twist, after carrying out a two-week poll on Space Disco, I found that general opinion is stacked firmly in favour of a NASA return mission to the moon…

To find out more, dive right into the Discovery Space Wide Angle: The Moon Landings:

    • Interview with Buzz Aldrin: Should We Return To The Moon?

      Irene Klotz discusses the Apollo 11 landing with the second man on the moon. What are his opinions about NASA’s plans for a return trip?

    • Opinion: One Small Step: Why Step Back?

      We did it 40 years ago, what’s the point in retracing our steps when we could just mount a manned mission to Mars? Ian O’Neill discusses the pros and cons about NASA’s future exploration plans. Including results from the Discovery Space reader poll.

NEWS

SLIDE SHOWS

    • Things You Didn’t Know About Apollo (HowStuffWorks)

      Did you know the Apollo 17 astronauts had to fix their lunar buggy with duct tape? Or that the Saturn V carrying Apollo 12 was struck by lightning 37 seconds after lift off? We investigate the little-known facts about the Apollo missions.

    • Top Ten Moon Mysteries (HowStuffWorks)

      It may be our natural satellite, easily observable in the night sky, but the moon still hides many secrets. Explore the lunar surface with us as we investigate some of the moon’s best kept secrets.

VIDEOS

FEATURE ARTICLES

  • Mining the Moon (IEEE Spectrum)

    We are told that one of the key reasons to set up a lunar base is to mine the moon for its abundance of natural resources, but is this realistic? In some ways yes, but there’s a lot of economics and politics to wade through first.

  • The End Of The Cult Of The Astronaut (IEEE Spectrum)

    Many in-space activities could be automated, negating the need for a human presence. However, taking astronauts out of the space exploration loop is as attractive as it is unpalatable. Is the astronaut surplus to requirements?

The Guardian Tackles the Moon Landing Hoax… Badly

apollo

I despise the so called Moon landing hoax with every fibre of my being, this is probably the reason why I don’t write about it much. Besides, other bloggers do a great job of slamming the conspiracy theorist claims, so there’s little point in me weighing in to pick at the left-overs. Every hoax claim has been debunked to the point that there really can be no doubt that 40 years ago, we landed on the Moon. In fact, we did it six times.

Hoax rehash

As we fast approach the 40 year anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on July 20th, there’s bound to be articles posted about the hoax, but I find that rather frustrating. Here we are, preparing to celebrate mankind’s biggest accomplishment, and there’s that annoying background static of conspiracy theorists trying to divert attention to their small minded idiocy. Oh well, that’s life.

Unfortunately it’s another day, and another occasion where the UK media lets us down. Sure, I get the fact that we’re nearing the lunar landing anniversary, I also get the fact that everyone loves a good conspiracy, I even get the fact that the media wants to exploit this opportunity to get more traffic, but this Guardian.co.uk slideshow seems very… uncomfortable.

The worst thing about it is that they’ve switched the goal posts. They call the conspiracy theorists “skeptics” and the logically-minded, “believers.” I might be nit-picking, but that is a terrible way to look at it.

We went to the Moon

In 1969, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins went to the Moon. Neil and Buzz had a wander around on the lunar surface, checked it out, gave the Apollo Program their seal of approval and we then saw another five Apollo launches until 1972. These are all facts. This is history. Granted, we haven’t been back in 40 years, but the point is, we’ve done it.

There has never been one NASA employee that has shouted “conspiracy,” which seems surprising considering the sheer number of NASA staff that would have had to fake the landings to make them happen. No, judging by the scale of such a scam, it would be easier to send man to the Moon instead! So, did we go to the Moon in 1969? YES!

Skeptical believers? Believable skeptics? What?

Going back to the Guardian slideshow, it might be a good summary of the conspiracy theorist claims, but it’s a tired, re-hashing of all the old bunkum even the Mythbusters ground into the lunar dust a long time ago. Plus, it puts way too much weight behind the conspiracy theory itself; the text causes confusion as to what a “skeptic” is and what a “believer” is.

A skeptic is a person who uses skeptical thought to look at the evidence rationally to arrive at a logical conclusion. All the evidence points to the fact we’ve been to the Moon. Therefore, no Moon landing hoax. We went to the Moon, simple.

A believer is a person who depends on faith, not evidence, to arrive at a conclusion. The “believers” in this case should be the ones who believe there was a hoax, and not vice versa.

Sorry, but the Guardian got it ass-backwards this time.

Source: Guardian.co.uk