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LCROSS: Crashing Craters

LCROSS simulated drawing
Image of LCROSS separation from Centaur during lunar approach. Image created for NASA and the LCROSS mission by Northrop Grumman, sponsor of Science Buddies' Aerodynamics Interest Area.

If everything goes as scheduled, the countdown to liftoff between June 17 and June 20 will mean NASA has launched a rocket intended to crash into the Moon — on purpose. The goal of the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission is to confirm the existence (or non-existence) of water ice on the Moon.

LCROSS is being aimed at an existing crater at the Moon's South Pole. Because the crater is in permanent shadows, researchers believe it may be cold enough to have frozen ice.

The rocket won't make contact for approximately four months. Those interested in monitoring the approach can follow the countdown clock on the NASA LCROSS site. In the interim, the Science Buddies' Craters and Meteorites project idea provides background information and gives students of all ages a concrete way to observe the formation of craters and the ways in which the size and density of the approaching object (e.g., meteor or LCROSS rocket) impacts the resulting size of the crater. (Note: This project can be done with students as young as preschool!)

According to NASA, when LCROSS's Centaur upper stage rocket makes impact, it may be possible to view the plume created when the rocket hits. The impact will potentially throw "tons of debris and potentially water ice and vapor above the lunar surface." Specialized instruments will analyze the contents of the plume, looking specifically for water (ice and vapor), hydrocarbons and hydrated materials.

NASA expects that the plume may be visible from Earth for astronomers using amateur-grade telescopes with apertures as small as 10-12 inches. Amateur astronomers who are interested in officially logging their observations and contributing to the project can find out more at: http://groups.google.com/group/lcross_observation.

With several months between launch and impact, there's plenty of time to get the necessary gear in place. Ambitious students might even want to build their own telescope using Science Buddies' abbreviated Build Your Own Telescope project idea. (Note: If you or your students pursue this project, make sure the mirrors used are at least 12 inches in diameter.)

For additional hands-on activities that tie in with principles of science and astronomy related to the LCROSS mission, check out the following PBS Kids' Design Squad activities for students age 9-12 (4th grade and up):

  • Build an air-powered rocket designed to hit a distant target in Launch It

  • Create a safe and cushioned astronaut landing zone in Touch Down

  • Configure a paper cup so it can travel a line and drop a marble onto a target in On Target

The LCROSS spacecraft was designed and built by Northrop Grumman. The LCROSS payload, which weighs in just under 28 pounds and contains nine science instruments, was developed by NASA Ames Research Center, which will be managing and monitoring the mission.

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