Two robotic probes were speeding towards the Moon at 8,000mph last night on a mission that will help to earmark future human camp sites, as hearings got under way in Washington that could shake up Nasa’s plans for returning Man to the lunar surface.
The launches of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) from Florida represent what Nasa calls its “first step in a lasting return to the Moon”, nearly 40 years after Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot there.
The twin voyage, which comes with a $580 million (£350 million) price tag, will produce the most precise and comprehensive measurements of the Moon’s topography yet made, with LRO mapping the surface over several years from an altitude of 31 miles.
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The life of LCROSS will be somewhat shorter. On October 9 it will separate from its Centaur rocket casing, which will then hurtle the final 54,000 miles into the Moon, hitting it at 6,000mph and kicking up an estimated 350 tons of material. LCROSS will begin its own kamikaze descent four minutes later, flying through the debris plume and beaming back readings of its content — searching for the presence of ice or water vapour, hydrocarbons and hydrated materials — before it, too, crashes.
“LCROSS has been the little mission that could,” said Doug Cooke, the associate administrator for Nasa’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. “We stand poised for an amazing mission and possible answers to some intriguing questions about the Moon.”