Physics: Principles and Problems


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For use with Chapter 4
Vector Addition

Lunar Prospector Crashes Into Moon!
Posted October 14, 1999

Early in the morning on July 31, 1999, the Lunar Prospector crash landed in a huge crater on the moon's surface. It was not a colossal mistake of the mission control, however. NASA meant to do it. The event was part of a controlled experiment to discover whether water exists on the moon.

Lunar Prospector was launched in January 1998 to revive NASA's exploration of Earth's only natural satellite. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the U.S. focused a lot of attention on the moon. But the last mission took place in 1972. Lunar Prospector's goals were to map the moon's surface, study its gravity, and examine its electromagnetic field. During its mission, Lunar Prospector detected the possibility of water in the form of ice on the surface.

One of the reasons that Prospector was allowed to crash is that it was never meant to return home. In fact, the majority of crafts sent into space never come back to Earth and just drift out into the cosmos. Instead of allowing Prospector to join our solar system's spaceship graveyard, NASA used it as a tool to detect water.

The craft was directed to land in a city-sized crater near the southern pole. Engineers hoped that the dust plume would travel high enough for the Hubble and other Earth-bound observatories to detect water molecules in the debris. This was "very difficult," according to David Morse of the Ames Research Center in California. David Folta of NASA, compared the feat to hitting a pie pan at home plate with a baseball thrown from second base at more than 100 miles per hour.

The NASA scientists hit their mark. Lunar Prospector smashed into the moon's surface at the velocity of 3800 mph. Professional and amateur scientists alike have been analyzing the data, but so far there is no solid evidence for water in the plume. However, full analysis will not be completed for several more weeks.

Activity
Lunar Prospector carried a small vial of ashes from the late astronomer Eugene Shoemaker, who died in an automobile accident in 1997. Shoemaker helped discover the Shoemaker-Levy comet, which crashed into Jupiter in 1994. Use the Internet to research the Shoemaker-Levy comet. What did astronomers learn from this event?

References
Lunar Prospector. http://lunar.arc.nasa.gov/

Lunar Prospector Impact Page. http://www.ae.utexas.edu/~cfpl/lunar/

Crash Landing on Moon Part of NASA Experiment. http://cnn.com/TECH/space/9907/31/lunar.
prospector.crash.04/index.html

Lunar Prospector Ends Mission with a Bang. http://cnn.com/TECH/space/9907/31/lunar.
prospector.crash.03/index.html

Prospector Spacecraft to Smash into Moon Saturday. http://cnn.com/TECH/space/9907/30/lunar.
prospector.crash/index.html

 


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