Friday, 1 May 2009

Crash Test!

I’ve just nightwalked. OK, I’ve just walked home through town at night. Same thing - with the usual dangers of wild animals...coming out of pubs. It’s a beautiful, clear evening – a little puff of cloud hanging here and there, but the moon is glowing through, grinning in first-quarter majesty. My brother’s visiting from Switzerland and, as big brothers do, he decided to quiz me on my life – what I’m doing, where I’m going, how far the moon is from Earth.

Me: 218,000 to 240,000 miles away*
Brother: That far?
Me: It’s only one light second
Brother: I thought it was, you know, a bit nearer – few hundred miles**

It was refreshing to reply to his questions with facts. True, they weren’t accurate facts (more ‘lies’ if you’re being pedantic) but they were still quick, factual responses to his interrogation. And now I know a little more about the moon, I could offer little anecdotes.

Like the one about humans crashing lunar craft into the moon’s surface to look for water.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) sets off in May for a year-long holiday with our closest astronomical colleague. You wait till you hear about the dreaded last day of the holiday. The little box of gadgets – which looks a bit like a nuclear washing machine with trumpets and a satellite dish stuck on the side – has a lot of responsibilities. Not only are we relying on the LRO to take hi-res surface images and record the temperature shifts between moon day and moon night, we’ve also asked the ugly little gizmo to take LCROSS for the ride: the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite.

photo courtesy of soest

LCROSS is the kamikaze of lunar voyagers. It will hurl itself into one of the moon’s poles to discover whether there is water ice hiding in a permanently-shadowed crater. The two tonne first section will create a giant plume of material up to 50km from the lunar surface. The surviving second section (along with observatories including Hubble) will study the cloud and try to identify any water vapour.

Hopefully, LCROSS’s short life will not be in vain. If NASA finds water, we’re all being flown up there for a bath. Of course not, think of the costs. But such a discovery would be immense and could perhaps make our 1960s dream of lunar inhabitation more of a reality. Sadly, none of the LRO will return to Earth. The entire craft will be crashed into the lunar surface for further tests.

But with the results the LRO produces, our next manned trip to the moon (the first since 1972), should be a much safer affair. Providing we don’t try to send the astronauts up in a radioactive washing machine.

*OK, it’s 221,000-252,000 miles really – I’d had a beer
**He’d had three beers

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