LRO Supports Historic Lunar Impact Mission

The lunar rocks brought back to the Earth by the Apollo astronauts were found to have very little water, and to be much drier than rocks on Earth. An explanation for this was that the Moon formed billions of years ago in the solar system's turbulent youth, when a Mars-sized planet crashed into Earth. The impact stripped away our planet's outer layer, sending it into orbit. The pieces later coalesced under their own gravity to form our Moon. Heat from all this mayhem vaporized most of the water in the lunar material, so the water was lost to space.

However, there was still a chance that water might be found in special places on the Moon. Due to the Moon's orientation to the Sun, scientists theorized that deep craters at the lunar poles would be in permanent shadow and thus extremely cold and able to trap volatile material like water as ice perhaps delivered there by comet impacts or chemical reactions with hydrogen carried by the solar wind.

Last year on October 9, NASA's LCROSS (Lunar Crater Remote Observation and Sensing Satellite) intentionally crashed its companion Centaur upper stage into the Cabeus crater near the lunar south pole. The idea was to kick up debris from the bottom of the crater so its composition could be analyzed. The Centaur hit at over 5,600 miles per hour, sending up a plume of material over 12 miles high.

"Seeing mostly pure water ice grains in the plume means water ice was somehow delivered or chemical processes are causing ice to accumulate in large quantities," said Anthony Colaprete, LCROSS project scientist and principal investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. "Furthermore, the diversity and abundance of certain materials called volatiles in the plume, suggest a variety of sources, like comets and asteroids, and an active water cycle within the lunar shadows."

LCROSS was a companion mission to NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission.

The two missions were designed to work together, and support from LRO was critical to the success of LCROSS. During impact, LRO, which is normally looking at the lunar surface, was tilted toward the horizon so it could observe the plume. Shortly after the Centaur hit the Moon, LRO flew past debris and gas from the impact while its instruments collected data.

"LRO assisted LCROSS in two primary ways -- selecting the impact site and confirming the LCROSS observations," said Gordon Chin of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., LRO associate project scientist.

"Since observatories on Earth were also planning to view the impact, there were a lot of constraints on the location -- the impact plume had to rise out of the crater and into sunlight, and it had to be visible from Earth," said Chin.

Prior to the impact, LRO's instruments worked together to map and provide details on the polar regions, according to Chin. For example, LRO's Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) instrument built up three-dimensional (topographic) maps of the surface. This data was plugged into computer simulations to see how shadows change as the Moon moves in its orbit, so that regions in permanent shadow could be identified. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) helped by making images of the actual regions of light and shade, which were used to verify the simulation's accuracy. Finally, LOLA measured the depths of polar craters to find areas where the impact could still be seen from Earth.

Since hydrogen is a component of water, maps of lunar hydrogen deposits are useful for finding areas that might hold water. Preliminary hydrogen maps were provided by the spacecraft's Lunar Exploration Neutron Detector (LEND) instrument. Regions that had relatively high amounts of hydrogen were identified as the most promising for the impact.

"Over a year ago, we formally suggested Cabeus to the LCROSS principal investigator," said LEND principal investigator, Igor Mitrofanov of the Institute for Space Research, Moscow. "According to our current data, the regolith within the Cabeus impact crater may have the highest content of water anywhere on the Moon, perhaps up 4.0 percent weight."

"Originally, the LCROSS team was going with a site further north than the Cabeus crater, because it was better for Earth visibility," said Chin. "However, LEND revealed that the area did not have a high hydrogen concentration, but Cabeus did. Also, Diviner showed that Cabeus was one of the coldest sites, and LOLA indicated it was in permanent shadow. So, we were able to inform the decision to aim for Cabeus further south -- while it was a little less visible from Earth, Cabeus was ultimately better for what we were trying to find."

Temperature maps from LRO's Diviner instrument were also crucial to identify where the coldest places were.

David Paige, principal Investigator of the Diviner instrument from the University of California, Los Angeles, used temperature measurements of the lunar south pole obtained by Diviner to model the stability of water ice both at and near the surface.

  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Reddit
  • RSS