Countdown to bombing raid on Moon

NASA is set to make its spectacular bombing raid on the Moon in a new bid to look for precious water. Two space missiles will blast holes in the lunar surface at twice the speed of a bullet tomorrow, Friday 9 October.

Artist's impression of LCROSS missile being fired at the MoonHubble in space plus professional observatories around the world will watch as the twin impacts occur shortly after 11.30 UT (7.30am EDT) – check the NASA countdown clock here.

First a two-ton Centaur rocket stage will crash at 5,600mph into a 60-mile wide crater called Cabeus near the lunar south pole at 1.31 UT (7.31am EDT).

It will blast its own small crater creating a bright flash and a plume of debris 30 miles high.

Four minutes later, the mission’s shepherding spacecraft, called LCROSS, will fly through the dust cloud to analyse it before colliding with the Moon too, creating a second plume.

Though the Moon is drier than any desert, space scientists believe ice dumped by comets could be trapped in permanently shadowed craters that have not seen sunlight for billions of years. If so they could provide vital water supplies for a manned moonbase, both to drink and be turned into fuel.

NASA say the Centaur impact will produce a crater about 20 yards wide and as deep as a swimming pool. It will have less effect on the Moon than a mosquito hitting a jumbo jet.

NASA will broadcast live coverage of the impacts, including images from space and the University of Hawaii’s 88-inch telescope on Mauna Kea. The space agency is also organising impact parties. And hundreds of stargazers’ backyard telescopes across the world will be watching the waning gibbous Moon for the impact blasts.

They will not be visible from the UK or Europe unfortunately as it will be daylight plus the Moon will be close to or below the horizon.

The LCROSS mission – it stands for Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite – launched in June together with another spacecraft, called the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The orbiter is still circling the Moon searching for potential landing sites for astronauts when they return there in the next decade.

Last month, NASA sensationally announced that three moon probes had confirmed that water is spread widely across the Moon. Yesterday they revealed that lunar colonists should be possible to extract it by simply adapting a microwave oven to produce and collect water vapour.

Ed Ethridge of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre said: “No magic, just microwaves. We’re showing how microwaves can extract water from moondust by heating it from the inside out.

“We believe we can use microwave heating to cause the water ice in a lunar permafrost layer to turn into water vapour. This can be collected and then condensed into liquid water. Best of all, microwave extraction can be done on the spot. And it requires no excavation – no heavy equipment for drilling into the hard-frozen lunar surface.”

Top picture: An artist’s impression of the Centaur rocket stage and LCROSS heading for impact with the Moon. (NASA). Bottom: A photograph showing the location of the crater Cabeus by UK amateur Jamie Cooper.

• Discover space for yourself and do fun science with a telescope. Here is Skymania’s advice on how to choose a telescope. We also have a guide to the different types of telescope available.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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