NASA Just Crashed A Spacecraft Into The Moon, On Purpose
NASA has confirmed that their Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission came to an end last night with the spacecraft making a planned impact onto the Moon's surface. The impact concludes a mission that started with LADEE's launch into space in September of last year, a mission that NASA hopes will answer some of the many questions scientists have about the moon's dusty atmosphere.
One of those questions revolves around a mysterious pre-sunlight glow seen by astronauts on a number of the Apollo missions. Researchers believe that this glow may be down to the dust in the moon's atmosphere becoming electrically charged by the sun's radiation. However, the data gathered by LADEE will stretch far beyond this one mystery, thanks in part to what will be looked back upon as a revolutionary data transmission system that saw the spacecraft receiving information from Earth at a staggering 20mbps.
While ending the mission by crashing the low-flying LADEE into the moon's surface may seem needlessly spectacular, this abrupt end to a 7 month mission was borne an inevitable result of the spacecraft's unique low flight path over the moon's surface. In its final days, LADEE was maneuvered into an orbit a mere mile from the moon's surface, which as the NASA press release points out, is lower than most commercial jetliners fly here on Earth. This incredibly low orbit will help researchers learn more about the lower atmosphere of our closest neighbor than ever before.
The spectacular ending to the LADEE mission was actually a carefully orchestrated one. The LADEE team wanted to ensure the spacecraft's final resting site was on the far side of the moon, and the expected crash will soon be surveyed by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, although quite what they will find when the Orbiter flies over the crash site, the team aren't quite sure.
"At the time of impact, LADEE was travelling at a speed of 3,600 miles per hour - about three times the speed of a high-powered rifle bullet," said LADEE project scientist, Rick Elphic. "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."
For more information on LADEE, visit the spacecraft's official mission page.