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Moon and Antares

September 3, 2011

Over the last four decades, Earth has given the Moon quite a pounding. Dozens of space vehicles have slammed into the Moon — quite a few of them in the name of science. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, for example, spent rocket stages and lunar modules were slammed into the lunar surface to create moonquakes. The quakes were recorded by instruments left on the Moon by Apollo astronauts, and helped probe the Moon’s interior.

Another impact took place five years ago today. Its goal was to produce a flash that telescopes on Earth could detect. The flash would reveal new details about the lunar surface.

Smart-1 was a European mission that had orbited the Moon for two years. It took thousands of detailed pictures, and mapped the mineral composition of the lunar surface. As it ran out of fuel, flight controllers gave it one last job — a controlled impact. The plan went off perfectly, and telescopes on Earth recorded the flash.

Several other lunar probes have also been intentionally crashed into the Moon. Their goal was to look for evidence of water in permanently shadowed craters at the south pole. The most recent of them succeeded, finding that there’s a lot more water on the Moon than expected — and giving the Moon one more kick in the name of science.

Look for the Moon fairly low in the southern sky as night falls, with the bright orange star Antares a little to its left.

Tomorrow: “shooting” stars.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011


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