LCROSS: Lunar Crater Observation & Sensing Satellite

    LCROSS

    Earth's closest neighbor, the moon, is holding a secret. In 1999, hints of this secret were revealed in the form of concentrated hydrogen signatures detected in permanently shadowed craters near the lunar poles by NASA's Lunar Prospector. These readings may be an indication of lunar water and could have far-reaching implications as humans expand exploration past low- Earth orbit. The LCROSS mission is seeking a definitive answer.

    In April 2006, NASA selected the LCROSS proposal for a low-cost, fast-track companion mission. The main LCROSS mission objective is to confirm if and in what form water may exist in one of these permanently shadowed craters. LCROSS launched with the LRO aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

    After launch, LRO separated from LCROSS and continued on to the moon. The LCROSS (shepherding) spacecraft retained the Atlas V's Centaur upper stage rocket for use it as the primary impactor for the mission, something that has never been done with a Centaur. After sufficient distance from LRO was achieved, the shepherding spacecraft and the Centaur performed a "blowdown" maneuver to vent remaining fuel inside the Centaur and prevent contamination of the impact site. Five days later, the shepherding spacecraft and the Centaur flew past of the Moon and entered an elongated Earth orbit to position LCROSS for impact on a lunar pole.

    On final approach, LCROSS and the Centaur will separate. The Centaur will act as the first impactor to create a debris plume with some of the heavier material reaching a height of up to 6.2 miles (10 km) above the lunar surface. Following four minutes behind, LCROSS will fly through the debris plume, collecting and relaying data back to Earth before impacting the lunar surface and creating a second debris plume.

    Lunar orbiting satellites and Earth-based telescopes on the ground and in orbit will observe the impacts and resulting debris plumes. The impacts are expected to be visible from Earth using telescopes 10-to-12 inches and larger. Data from these multiple sources will be used in preparation for the eventual return of humans to the moon.

    The LCROSS science payload consists of two near-infrared spectrometers, a visible light spectrometer, two mid-infrared cameras, two near-infrared cameras, a visible camera, and a visible radiometer. The LCROSS instrument payload was designed to provide mission scientists with multiple complementary views of the debris plume created by the Centaur impact.

    As the debris plume rises above the target crater's rim, it is exposed to sunlight and any water ice, hydrocarbons, or organics will vaporize and break down into their basic components. These components primarily will be monitored by the visible and infrared spectrometers. The near-infrared and mid-infrared cameras will determine the total amount and distribution of water in the debris plume. The spacecraft's visible camera will track the impact location and the behavior of the debris plume while the visible photometer will measure the flash created by the Centaur impact.

    As the debris plume rises above the target crater's rim, it is exposed to sunlight and any water ice, hydrocarbons, or organics will vaporize and break down into their basic components. These components primarily will be monitored by the visible and infrared spectrometers. The near-infrared and mid-infrared cameras will determine the total amount and distribution of water in the debris plume. The spacecraft's visible camera will track the impact location and the behavior of the debris plume while the visible photometer will measure the flash created by the Centaur impact.

    LCROSS is a fast-paced, low-cost, mission that leverages select NASA flight-ready systems, commercial-off-the-shelf components, the spacecraft expertise of Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, Redondo Beach, Calif, and the experience gained from NASA's Lunar Prospector mission. NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif, is managing the mission, conducting mission operations, and developing the payload instruments, while Northrop Grumman designed and built the spacecraft for this innovative mission. Ames mission scientists will spearhead the data collection and analysis.

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