One of NASA’s most ambitious projects in recent history was hailed as a major success when the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) plummeted into the massive Cabaeus-A crater in a spectacular display sending debris an estimated 350 meters off the surface. There was only one problem; Observers all over Earth zeroed in with thousands of telescopes on the moon, but not one saw so much as a puff on the Lunar surface. The lack of a visual fireworks display left several people, including some in NASA scratching their heads.
The Palomar Observatory, which videotaped the crater through a 200 inch telescope equipped with sensitive optics systems, was unable to see a speck of dust escaping into the sunlight. The mission was a success, or so NASA says, but why no debris? As with any subject that is highly controversial, rumors have erupted from every corner of the internet, spilling into forums and chain emails.
Some say the LCROSS was used as an improvised missile to destroy a previously established missile silo on the moon, and didn’t have a plume primarily because it crumpled like a tin can upon impact. Another source says the LCROSS never reached its destination because it was intercepted by an unknown force before it could reach the ground. One forum post suggests the entire thing was a hoax created by NASA to re-appropriate NASA money into black budget projects. Granted these are some of the more sensational theories, but it is possible to get some level of perspective on the LCROSS’ last mission. After all, LCROSS wasn’t the first probe to crash into the moon on purpose.
In 1999, the Lunar Prospector, after a long mission orbiting the moon, was sent in an orbital path that would give it speed before it finally crashed into a crater at the south pole of the moon. The mission was considered a last ditch effort to get the Prospector to do one last useful thing before its usefulness was up. It slammed into the crater with an expectation then of less than 10 percent of it finding any water while a nearby satellite observed. The mission was not considered a total failure, though it did not produce any observable water readings. It did, however, serve as the first direct impact study of the moon’s surface and paved the way for later projects such as LCROSS. Interestingly enough, however, no plume was detected for this mission either, leading some seasoned NASA officials to be a little less surprised when none was spotted on Friday’s moon crash.
Interestingly, a flash of light was documented just as LCROSS smashed into the crater. It was picked up by the mid-level infrared such as IKONOS and GEO-EYE 1, confirming that the LCROSS did indeed reach its target destination. In addition, sensors did pick up data from a small debris cloud and get sent back to earth. In time NASA will likely have an explanation as to why the Lunar plume was not visible to Earthlings, but in time the only thing we will really remember is if the mission will be a success or not. In recent days there has been a tangible excitement for the moon, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in years. One way or another, it’s nice to know so many are once again looking to the sky with a sense of wonder.