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Spacecraft Crashes Into Moon In Search Of Water

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Spacecraft Crashes Into Moon In Search Of Water

Space

Spacecraft Crashes Into Moon In Search Of Water

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

There's a classic silent film that shows a rocket zooming toward the man in the moon. It hits some smack in the eye. That was early science fiction. Well, this morning, NASA did something a little bit like that. It smashed an empty rocket into a cold, dark lunar crater near the moon's south pole. The goal was to kick up evidence of water in the form of ice, as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Moments before the big rocket part crashed into a lunar crater at more than 5,000 miles per hour, flight director Rusty Hunt asked his team at NASA's Ames Research Center in California if they were ready for the impact.

Unidentified Man #1: Payloader(ph), you go.

Unidentified Man #2: Go flight.

Unidentified Man #1: Science.

Unidentified Woman: Go.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: As the chunk of rocket hurdled down towards the lunar surface, another spacecraft followed. Its cameras and science instruments were sending images and data back to earth. NASA showed this footage live on the Internet. You could see grey craters slowly coming closer and closer until the big target crater Cabeus filled the screen with black shadows hiding its floor.

Unidentified Man #3: All stations, flight. Mark, send to our impact.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But when the rocket hit, the footage didn't show a big explosion. The images just got fuzzy and disappeared. As planned, the observation spacecraft had crashed a few minutes after the first impact.

(Soundbite of applause)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: All around the country, people had gathered to watch NASA sock it to the moon. At the museum in Washington, D.C., NASA officials and people off the street viewed the footage on a big screen. John Gloraki(ph) of McLean, Virginia had come with his daughter and young son, who was wearing a spacesuit costume. Gloraki said the crash didn't look quite like he expected.

Mr. JOHN GLORAKI: I was waiting for the plume, actually, but I guess that comes later. So, yeah, it was pretty cool.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The impact was expected to send a huge cloud of debris miles up above the crater's rim. But initial images didn't show that. At a press conference, mission managers said maybe the plume just didn't rise as high as they expected or it was at an angle.

Dr. ANTHONY COLAPRETE (Project Scientist, LCROSS): I guess I'm not necessarily surprised because I knew I would be surprised, if that makes any sense. I knew we were going some place that to expect what you're going to expect.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Anthony Colaprete is the project scientist for this mission, which is called LCROSS for Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite. His team said images were still being processed from the spacecraft and telescopes that were watching the crash. We'll be putting the latest pictures up at npr.org. Colaprete says they already know enough to say the mission was successful.

Dr. COLAPRETE: I can certainly report there was an impact. We saw the impact. We saw the crater. And we got good measurements, spectroscopic measurements, which is what we needed of the impact event.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says it looks like they'll have the data they need to answer the question, is water hidden inside the moon's darkest, coldest craters? He says it will be a while before they make any announcements. But reporters pressed Colaprete to say if any early signs of water had been found. One reporter asked if he would know if water is there later in the day.

Dr. COLAPRETE: I probably will, but I'm not going to tell you now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says his team has to study the new information thoroughly.

Dr. COLAPRETE: We've just got to sit back and be careful. We don't want to -again, it's - life is full of surprises. We want to be careful, not make a false negative or a false positive claim.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Knowing if water is in the craters, and if so, how much, would be scientifically interesting, as well as potentially useful, as NASA plans future exploration efforts. Colaprete said his team would be working feverishly. But first, they were going to get some sleep. They've been up all night getting ready for their brief one, two punch to the moon.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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