Moon science probe crashed on purpose at mission end

NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer mission had a smashing ending Friday when the US space agency crashed the spacecraft into the moon’s surface.

The ground controllers, monitoring the spacecraft’s operations from NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, confirmed that it impacted the lunar surface as planned sometime between 2130 and 2222 UTC on Friday

Mission officials said that the spacecraft didn’t have enough fuel to remain in an ongoing lunar orbit or sustain its science operations.  And, since the spacecraft’s orbit was already naturally decaying following the mission’s final science phase earlier this month, it was decided that it would be intentionally sent down onto the lunar surface.

With the craft flying at less than two kilometers above the lunar surface, mission specialists said that the final science phase allowed them to gather some very unique measurements.

NASA said that as it impacted the moon, the vending machine-sized spacecraft heated up several hundred degrees and broke apart or vaporized.  The space agency believes that if any material remained after crashing, it’s likely buried in the moon’s shallow craters.

At the time of impact, the craft was traveling at a speed of 3,600 miles per hour, about three times the speed of a high-powered rifle bullet, said Rick Elphic, project scientist at Ames.

The craft was launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Sept. 7.  The spacecraft entered lunar orbit on Oct. 6 and started to gather data on Nov.10. In January NASA decided to extend the mission by an extra month after it finished its very successful primary science phase which took place earlier this month.

Throughout its mission the craft was able to collect some very comprehensive information about the lunar atmosphere’s structure and composition, the scientists said.

NASA scientists continue to pore through the data gathered throughout the lunar spacecraft’s mission and are hoping that it will provide an answer to a question that has puzzled many since the Apollo moon missions of the late 1960s early 1970s. Was the pre-sunrise glow that was observed just above the moon’s horizon caused by lunar dust that had been electrically charged by sunlight?

Thousands of people from around the world shared in the final part of the mission by taking part in a NASA sponsored internet contest called Take the Plunge.  The contest challenged participants to guess the date and time the spacecraft would crash into the moon. Those who provided correct answers will win a digital congratulatory certificate.

This was a mission of firsts, achieving yet another first by successfully flying more than 100 orbits at extremely low altitudes, said Joan Salute, a program executive, at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Although a risky decision, we’re already seeing evidence that the risk was worth taking.”

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