The Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) is a very exciting mission for lunar exploration. Since the discovery of water on Mars by Phoenix last week, focus is turning on other planetary bodies and natural satellites for the possibility they may hold a supply of water too. First stop for any manned mission will be our return trip to the Moon by 2020, so it would be very advantageous if we could find a frozen reservoir of H2O hiding within the craters of the lunar surface. LCROSS is going to hitch a ride with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) later this year on board an Atlas V rocket. It has just passed some gruelling pre-launch tests before it sets out on a suicide mission that will end in collision with the lunar surface…
To make sure LCROSS can stand up to the huge temperature gradients it will experience during its lunar adventure, engineers have subjected it to rigorous heating and cooling cycles at the Northrop Grumman facility in Redondo Beach, California. These tests come after successful completion of thermal vacuum testing at the start of this month. LCROSS has also been given the thumbs up after passing a launch acoustic vibration simulation intended to see how the integrity of the spacecraft copes with the violence of an Atlas V blast-off.
This new round of tests heated the spacecraft to 230°F (110°C) and then cooled it to -40°F (-40°C) over 13.5 days to simulate the extremes of temperature it will experience en-route to the Moon and flyby.
“The spacecraft steadily has taken shape since Ames delivered the science payload in January. It is a testament to the hard work, perseverance and expertise of the NASA and Northrop Grumman teams that the spacecraft has completed these critical tests ahead of schedule.” – Daniel Andrews, LCROSS project manager, NASA’s Ames Research Center, California.
When in orbit around the Moon in 2009, LCROSS will create two impact plumes in the lunar surface. The target will be a crater near the lunar polar region that is constantly in shadow. This is the perfect location for water ice to form, if there’s any at all.
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The Atlas V’s Centaur upper stage rocket will carry LCROSS to the Moon and execute a lunar flyby. It will then enter an elongated Earth orbit, putting the probe in the correct trajectory, ready for LCROSS-Centaur separation. The Centaur stage will then be instructed to carry out a suicidal plunge into the surface so the resulting plume of dust and gas that will rise into the orbital path for LCROSS to analyse. Once data about the plume is relayed to Earth, LCROSS itself will make the ultimate sacrifice, ploughing into the Moon’s surface, creating a second plume of debris for Earth-based observatories to analyse.
It is hoped this trailblazer mission will unlock some of the lunar secrets as to whether water ice is present in any great quantities inside this polar crater, possibly the source for a future manned lunar base.