Twin NASA space­craft ready to crash into moon

Im­pacts will end year­long mis­sion that stud­ied grav­ity.

Austin American-Statesman - - THE SECOND FRONT - Byali­cia chang

LOS AN­GE­LES — Af­ter nearly a year cir­cling the moon, NASA’s Ebb and Flow will meet their demise when they crash — on pur­pose — into the lu­nar sur­face.

Just don’t ex­pect to see ce­les­tial fire­works. Next week’s im­pact near the moon’s north pole by the wash­ing-ma­chine-sized space­craft won’t carve a gap­ing crater or kick up a lot of de­bris. And it’ll be dark when it hap­pens.

“We are not ex­pect­ing a big flash or a big ex­plo­sion” that will be vis­i­ble from Earth, said mis­sion chief sci­en­tist Maria Zu­ber of the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy.

Still, it’ll mark a vi­o­lent end to a suc­cess­ful mis­sion that has pro­duced the most high-res­o­lu­tion grav­ity maps of Earth’s clos­est neigh­bor. Fri­day, engi­neers will turn off the sci­ence in­stru­ments.

Pre­vi­ous un­manned trips to the moon have stud­ied its lumpy grav­i­ta­tional field, but Ebb and Flow are the first ones ded­i­cated to this goal. Since en­ter­ing or­bit over New Year’s week­end, the for­ma­tion-fly­ing space­craft have peered past the craggy sur­face into the in­te­rior.

Ini­tially, the space­craft flew about 35 miles above the sur­face and later dropped down to 14 miles. About an hour be­fore Mon­day’s im­pact, they will fire their en­gines un­til they run out of fuel and slam at 3,800 mph into a pre­de­ter­mined tar­get — a moun­tain near the north pole that’s far away from the Apollo land­ing sites.

Ebb will hit first fol­lowed by Flow 20 sec­onds later. Though the drama won’t be vis­i­ble from Earth, the Lu­nar Re­con­nais­sance Or­biter will fly over the crash site af­ter­ward and at­tempt to spot them.

The last time NASA aimed at the moon was in 2009. The world watched through tele­scopes and over the In­ter­net as a space­craft and its booster rocket smashed into a per­ma­nently shad­owed crater — a one-two punch that fiz­zled when spec­ta­tors saw lit­tle more than a fuzzy white flash.

The mis­sion’s end will also mark the close of a stu­dent cam­paign that used cam­eras aboard the space­craft to im­age lu­nar tar­gets, in­clud­ing on the moon’s far side. The MoonKAM project was spear­headed by a sci­ence ed­u­ca­tion com­pany founded by Sally Ride, the first Amer­i­can woman in space. Ride died of pan­cre­atic can­cer in July at age 61.

Even af­ter Ebb and Flow com­plete their mis­sion, sci­en­tists will con­tinue to pore over the bounty of data they col­lected.

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