A spacecraft has ended a mission to map the dust and gases surrounding the moon with a planned kamikaze crash. Scientists believe the crash left no debris on the moon.
On Friday, flight controllers confirmed that the orbiting spacecraft had crashed into the back side of the moon as planned, just three days after unexpectedly surviving the full lunar eclipse earlier in the week. Researchers believe the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) vaporized on impact because of its extreme orbiting speed of 3,600 miles per hour (5,800 kph), possibly smacking into a mountain or the side of a crater. Scientists will now use NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to try to figure out where LADEE hit.
"There's nothing gentle about impact at these speeds," the project's lead scientist, Rick Elphic of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, said in a statement. "It will be interesting to see what kind of feature LADEE has created," Elphic said. "It's bound to make a dent," he added.
Launched on September 6 from Wallops Island, Virginia, LADEE began to orbit the moon in October. In November, after an instrument check and adjustments to its altitude, LADEE began a $280 million mission that scientists had originally planned for 100 days. NASA later extended LADEE's run to April 21, but the craft ran out of fuel and came down somewhere on the far side of the moon between 12:30 a.m. and 1:22 a.m. EDT (0630 and 0722 UTC) on Friday, NASA announced.
As its mission ended, LADEE flew at increasingly lower altitudes, dipping to 300 feet (90 meters) above the lunar surface to study dust particles and the gases that compose the region of space surrounding the moon. In addition to gaining a better understanding of the moon, scientists plan to use the data collected about the lunar exosphere to model the environments around other airless bodies, including the icey dwarf planet Pluto, which a NASA spacecraft will visit for the first time next year.
mkg/msh (Reuters, AP)