There seems to be a little lunacy making the rounds that NASA is going to “bomb” the Moon on Friday morning, or “hurt the Moon,” or “split the Moon in half,” or change its orbit. This is all just nonsense and scare-mongering, and those worried about our Moon can rest assured our lunar companion will remain in the sky relatively unchanged after this experiment to search for water ice on the Moon’s south pole. Let’s take a look at the physics involved and what might happen to the Moon.
First of all, there are no explosives involved. The LCROSS mission is going sending a upper stage of a Centaur rocket and a smaller spacecraft to impact the Moon. The two objects will create a crater — The 5,000-pound (2,270-kilogram) Centaur is expected to slam into Cabeus Crater on the Moon’s south pole at a sharp angle at a speed of 5,600 mph (9,000 kilometers per hour). The Centaur’s collision is expected to create a crater roughly 60 or 70 feet wide (20 meters wide) and perhaps as much as 16 feet (5 meters) deep, ejecting approximately 385 tons of lunar dust and soil — and hopefully some ice.
The LCROSS spacecraft itself, weighing in at 1,500-pounds (700-kilograms), will follow the Centaur by about four minutes and fly through the regolith plume thrown up by the collision, just before it too slams into the lunar surface, kicking up its own smaller plume of debris, all the while using its sensors to look for telltale signs of water, beaming the information back to Earth.
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So, yes, it will make a rather big crater on the Moon. But one close-up look at the lunar surface will reveal that the Moon is full of craters, and still regularly receives hits by meteorites and larger space rocks – not as much as in the past, as most of the craters on the Moon are from an earlier period in our history when there was more debris left over from the formation of the solar system. The Moon was not “hurt” in the past, and it will not get hurt by this impact. Additionally, other spacecraft have hit the lunar surface with no adverse effects on the Moon or its orbit.
But will this impact change the Moon’s orbit? Dr. Jeff Goldstein from the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education writes about this on his blog, Blog on the Universe:
The Atlas V Centaur upper stage has a mass of 2,000 kg (the more massive of the two vehicles impacting the Moon). It will be moving at 5,600 mph (2.5 km/sec.) BAM! By comparison, the Moon is orbiting the Earth at the measely speed of 2,300 mph (1.022 km/sec). On the other hand, the Moon is just a tad bit more massive than the specks on a collision course.
So let’s say we wanted to change the Moon’s speed by JUST 1 MPH (0.0004 km/sec)—which is less than 1/2,000th its orbital speed—and we were going to do it by hurling Atlas V Centaur upper stages at the Moon. How many would we have to hurl its way? HEY, let’s give every person on planet Earth an opportunity to hurl one. Would that do it? Uh … nope. Every person on Earth (all nearly 7 billion of us) would each need to hurl 1 MILLION Atlas V Centaur upper stages at the Moon. I’d rather just hurl one and not worry about it. Rest easy, sleep well, and let’s see if we can find water on the Moon at the South Pole.
Another question people have been asking: Will the impact destroy the water we are looking for?
NASA answers that question on the LCROSS FAQ site:
The LCROSS impact will have the same effect on the water (if it is indeed there) as any other object that might naturally impact it. Most (>90%) of any water that is excavated by LCROSS will most likely return to nearby “cold traps”. The LCROSS impact is actually a slow impact and, thus, most of the material is not thrown very high upward, rather outward, adjacent to the impact site. Of the water that does get thrown upward, much of it will actually return to the Moon and eventually find its way back to the dark, cold craters. This is actually one possible way that the water was supplied in the first place: it was deposited following the impacts of comets and asteroids.
There is about 12,500 square km of permanently shadowed terrain on the Moon. If the top 1 meter of this area were to hold 1% (by mass) water, that would be equivalent to about 4.1 x 1011 liters of water! This is approximately 2% the volume of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The LCROSS impact will excavate a crater approximately 20 meters in diameter, or about one-trillionth the total permanently shadowed area. It is safe to say the LCROSS impact will not have a lasting effect on lunar water, if it does indeed exist.