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LCROSS stands for Lunar Crater Observations Sensing Satellite. The mission of the LCROSS satellite is a satellite launched in conjunction with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in June 2009. The purpose of the satellite was to verify evidence found in 1999 that Lunar Surface had water. This would be a major discovery as the existence of water would provide interesting information from the formation of Earth and the Moon to providing a needed resource for possible long term exploration and eventual colonization of the Moon.
The LCROSS satellite was launched with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter June 18, 2009 from Cape Canaveral Air Station in Florida. The launch vehicle used was an Atlas rocket. The goal of the LCROSS space craft’s mission lay in its design. It actually consisted of two parts. One was the Centaur rocket which would crash into the lunar surface and produce a plume of debris that shot up into space. The second part was a shepherding vehicle that would analyze the debris for signs of water.
The projected site of the impact was the Lunar South Pole and the impact occurred as projected on October 9, 2009. In order to produce a large enough plume the Centaur rocket used as the impactor would have to be traveling at very high velocities. The goal was for the impactor to displace around 350 metric tons of lunar material and make a crater of 20 in diameter and 4 meters in depth. The velocity that scientist thought would achieve this goal was 9,000 km/h. However the real impact had the Centaur rocket travelling at 10,000 km/h; however, despite travelling at faster than expected velocities the projected crater ended up being smaller than expected being only 14 meters in diameter and 2 meters in depth.
The good news is that the Shepherding space craft was able to detect water in the plume that the impactor produced. This is significant as it was considered an important prerequisite for NASA considering the construction of a Moon Base. Without a ready source of water as mentioned earlier it would be very difficult to establish a long term base on the Moon that did not involve a very costly supply chain. With a ready water source the cost of transferring supplies to the Moon would be dramatically cheaper and make experiments on long term exploration of extraterrestrial bodies a reality. That may prove vital in other future missions such as manned exploration of Mars.
We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Return to the Moon. Listen here, Episode 115: The Moon, Part 3: Return to the Moon.