In the 1960 cartoon "Hits and Missiles," Popeye the Sailor Man accidentally crashes a rocket into a moon made of cheese.
Popeye soon realizes he needs more fuel, "so we can gets back to Oyth," and he goes looking for help.
When a group of NASA scientists deliberately crashes a rocket into the moon this summer, they'll be looking for fuel, too -- in a way.
They hope the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, will tell them whether there's any water ice on the moon. If so, it could conceivably be harvested for human use, including as rocket fuel.
The LCROSS satellite will hitchhike to the moon with the larger Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or LRO; together, the missions represent NASA's first steps in the plan to return humans to the moon and establish a lunar outpost by 2020.
In this mission, the violent demise of a NASA space probe will happen on purpose. As they examine the results of LCROSS' demise, scientists hope to discover water vapor.
Because LCROSS was conceived almost as an afterthought and had a tight schedule and budget, it includes parts cobbled together from private industry. The craft's infrared spectrometer comes from a company that makes a hand-held device for carpet recyclers, for instance, and one of its infrared cameras was originally designed for IndyCar racing.
"It's amazing -- if you do a search in industry and you have specific requirements, you can find instruments out there that meet your specifications. You're actually just taking advantage of the private and commercial investment," said Anthony Colaprete, principal investigator for the LCROSS mission, based at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. "It didn't necessarily make things better, but it resulted in instrumentation and spacecraft that was good enough. That was the mantra."
In a similar vein, the mission is also a chance for amateur astronomers to participate in groundbreaking science. The space agency is soliciting help from moon-watchers who have sent images of the moon in various phases and who will train their telescopes toward Earth's companion to watch the impact this summer. The project is a highlight for the International Year of Astronomy.
The moon shot is scheduled for this spring, with a targeted launch date of May 21; the crash is set for Aug. 28.
During planning for the reconnaissance orbiter, engineers realized the craft's Atlas V rocket had enough thrust to accommodate another probe, so NASA asked for proposals. Colaprete, who studies climate change on Earth and Mars, worked with Dan Andrews, now LCROSS's project manager, and others to come up with the idea of smashing something into the moon so they could examine the debris.They joined forces with engineers at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems and designed LCROSS, which was chosen from among the proposals in April 2006. The craft had been designed, built, and tested by spring 2008, an unusually quick turnaround that Colaprete said helped the team stay on target.
"It led to a design that was simple and easy to put together. If you have more time, you think about it more, things get more complicated," he said.
Stephen Hixson, vice president for advanced concepts technology and emerging systems at Northrop Grumman, said the mission's 27-month deadline and relatively cheap $79 million price tag forced the team to stay within its means. Engineers had to dream small.
"You could look upon it as a constraint, or you could look upon it as, you basically determine what your volume is for your avionics, your solar array, and your instrument payload," Hixson said. "In some sense it simplified the task for us."single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.