Friday, October 9, 2009
NASA smacked two spacecraft into the lunar south pole Friday morning in a search for hidden ice. Instruments confirm that a large empty rocket hull barreled into the moon at 7:31 a.m., followed four minutes later by a probe with cameras taking pictures of the first crash.
But initial photos show that the moon didn't give the reaction to the double jabs that NASA expected.
And the public definitely didn't get the live explosive views they may have anticipated from the mission called LCROSS, short for Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite.
Screens got fuzz and no immediate pictures of the crash or the six-mile plume of lunar dust that the mission was supposed to kick up for scientists to study. The public, which followed the crashes on the Internet and at observatories, seemed puzzled.
NASA officials touted loads of data from the probe and telescopes around the world and in orbit. But the crash photos and videos they offered at a morning news conference were few and showed little more than a fuzzy white flash.
Still, NASA scientists were happy.
"This is so cool," said Jennifer Heldmann, coordinator for NASA's observation campaign. "We're thrilled."
The first photos and videos that NASA got didn't show any plumes. They may still be coming or there may not have been much of a visible plume for the probe and Earth-bound telescopes to see, said LCROSS scientist Anthony Colaprete.
"We saw a crater; we saw a flash, so something had to happen in between," Colaprete said. The crater was the aftermath of the crash and the flash was the impact itself.
The unexpected lack of pictures of a plume could be because the plume was at a different angle, hit slopes or wasn't high enough to show up, he said. Or the lunar soil could have compressed down and not tossed up as much dust as expected, he said.
Colaprete played down the importance of pictures of the plume. Far more important is light spectrum measurements - taken but not yet analyzed - to show if there is water or some form of water in what was tossed up. The scientific instruments that took those measurements worked perfectly, he said.
"What matters for us is: What is the nature of the stuff that was kicked up going in?" said NASA project manager Dan Andrews. "All nine instruments were working fine and we received good data."
Andrews said the science team is pouring through the information to answer the big question: Is there some form of water under the moon's surface that was dislodged? It will probably be two weeks before scientists will be certain about the answer, he said.
"This is going to change the way we look at the moon," NASA chief lunar scientist Michael Wargo said at the news conference.
Expectations by the public for live plume video were probably too high and based on pre-crash animations, some of which were not by NASA, Andrews told The Associated Press Friday morning 80 minutes after impact.
Another issue, one NASA thought was a good possibility going into Friday, was that the lighting was bad and work needs to be done on images to make them easier to see, Andrews said.
People who got up before dawn to look for the crash at Los Angeles' Griffith Observatory threw confused looks at each other instead. They tried to watch on TV because the skies in Southern California were not clear enough, but that proved disappointing, too.
Telescope demonstrator Jim Mahon called the celestial show "anticlimactic."
"I was hoping we'd see a flash or a flare, evidence of a plume," Mahon said.
About 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles, 70 elementary school students at the Lewis Center for Educational Research charter school in Apple Valley capped off their weeklong "moon camp" experience by rising early to watch NASA television along with 300 members of the public.
"It was cool seeing actual pictures of the moon live," said 10-year-old Jackson Bridges, but he added: "I wanted to see the debris flying out."
Science Writer Alicia Chang contributed to this report from Los Angeles.