NASA launches probes to the moon
My commentary in bold
NASA blasted two probes into space on a landmark lunar exploration mission to scout water sources and landing sites in anticipation of sending mankind back to the moon in 2020.
IIRC, Kennedy set the goal in 1961 of a manned return trip which was attained eight years later. That was forty-eight years ago; is NASA really saying that with today's technology and the wealth of previous experience, it can't be done in less than eleven years?
The launch marked 'America's first step in a lasting return to the moon,' a NASA official said moments after a rocket carrying the probes launched at 5:32 pm (2132 GMT), on Thursday, a day after the US space agency scrubbed the shuttle Endeavour launch for the second time in a week because of a nagging hydrogen fuel leak.
The shuttle technology is thirty-plus years old. In all that time, and with two shuttles destroyed in accidents, it beggars the imagination that NASA hasn't expanded the spaceplane fleet - either with additional shuttles to the same design, or with a more advanced concept.
The liftoff of the dual LRO and LCROSS missions atop an Atlas V rocket from Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida occured one month shy of the 40th anniversary of NASA's historic first landings on Earth's natural satellite in 1969.
Granted, the Shuttle is not the ideal launch platform for everything, but the Atlas itself is based on an ICBM first mooted in 1954. Have there been no advances in launch-platform technology in the interim? I hope this Atlas is a very different beast to its originator!
Americans have been the only people to walk on the moon -- with the last such outing in 1972 -- and the new mission is the first step on the long journey to launch manned missions further into our solar system, to the planet Mars and beyond, from lunar colonies.
US President Barack Obama has said the program, dubbed the Constellation project, needs to be reviewed, but so far has not cast doubt on its goals.
One hopes that "needs to be reviewed" does not mean "can be sacrificed on the altar of economic expediency". This sentence alone is worrying.
'The robotic mission will give us information we need to make informed decisions about any future human presence on the moon,' program manager Todd May told reporters earlier this week.
The Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) in particular looks set to be one of NASA's most spectacular bids at discovery for years.
To seek out water ice on the moon -- a critical component for any planning for manned lunar colonies -- the probe will analyse data from ejected lunar material after the separated portion of the rocket, named Centaur, crashes into a permanently shadowed crater, on the dark side of the moon that never sees sunshine.
This is either bad phrasing or utter crap, the latter of which makes me despair at the standard of science reporting today. At best it posits that the impact point is so shielded by the lip of the crater that it never sees sunlight, which might be accurate. To state that the 'dark side of the moon' - i.e. the (very inaccurate name for the) one we cannot see from Earth - never sees sunlight is utter bullshit.
After examining the moon matter, the explorer will follow the rocket's lead by also hurling itself into the moon at approximately 2.5 kilometres per second -- some 9,000 km/h.
Thus proving what? I assume the LRO mentioned below - or Earth-based probes - will examine the results of this second impact, but it's very badly put. And it seems a waste. I can see why impact probes are useful - they're cheap, because they don't have to be much more than a minimally guided bullet, and more sophisticated instruments in orbit can analyse the matter thrown up - but why not put a rover down on the surface which can drill or dig, and refresh your knowledge of soft-landing procedures?
In total, NASA said, the two impacts will excavate some 500 metric tons of lunar material and begin the search for a long-frozen water source. The project will also examine the moon's mineral makeup.
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or LRO, hopes to learn more about the moon through a one-year stay at an orbit of about 50 kilometres -- the closest continual lunar orbit of any spacecraft.
LRO's $US500 million ($A630.91 million) mission is designed to provide NASA with maps of unprecedented accuracy, which will be crucial for scoping out possible landing sites.
Both missions, May said, will help NASA model the nuances of lunar lighting and temperature range, and provide future moon travelers with information on the cosmic radiation the moon is exposed to due to its lack of atmosphere.
The probes' four-day, 384,000-kilometre return to the moon 40 years after humans first set foot on its surface is expected to illuminate our closest extra-terrestrial neighbour like never before.
'Earth is subject to erosion processes from air and water,' noted May. 'The moon itself doesn't have this process.... LRO will send back pictures daily on things we have barely seen before.'
These things together cost about a hundredth of what our government (Australia) has recently assigned on "stimulus packages". It annoys me that Australia - with its own long history of rocketry research (shared with the British at Woomera) - can't do something like this. It's good that NASA's doing it, but it should have been doing a lot more. And we should start doing it as well.