NASA slammed two spacecraft into the Moon today in a bid to find water – but any lunar fireworks hoped for turned out to be a damp squib.
Astronomers around the world trained telescopes on the Moon to watch for bright flashes and clouds of debris to mark the impacts and saw… nothing.
The space agency confirmed that a two-ton Centaur rocket crashed first at 12.31pm UK time followed four minutes later by its shepherding spacecraft, called LCROSS – the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite.
Instruments aboard the LCROSS probe confirmed that the rocket had blown a fresh hole in a 60-mile-wide crater called Cabeus near the lunar south pole.
But its TV camera revealed NO bright flash and NO sign of any plume of dust – a huge disappointment to thousands of stargazers who gathered for impact parties across the USA.
LCROSS’s own crash, at 5,600mph, was a third as powerful as that of the rocket it was following, and there was no visible sign of that either from telescopes on Earth.
One wag asked whether this meant NASA had faked the Moon bombings as well as the Apollo landings. But NASA had warned that the climax of the $79 million mission was likely only to be visible through large telescopes.
NASA scientists will now analyse data from LCROSS and professional observatories to look for the signature of water in the clouds of impact dust that were expected to blow up to 30 miles high.
They hope to find large reservoirs of ice which astronauts could use to drink and make fuel for future exploration of the solar system.
Scentists at mission control at NASA’s Ames Research Centre in California were jubilant when their bombing mission happened as planned. And at a press conference, the team said LCROSS’s infrared camera had imaged the Centaur impact as a “little white speck.” Scientist Anthony Colaprete said: “We actually saw a crater, we measured its temperature.”
But there was no disguising the disappointment of stargazers who failed to witness the spectacle they had, perhaps unrealistically, been hoping for.
• 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.