A NASA spacecraft that has been orbiting the moon for months is set to conclude its mission, with a bang when it smashes into the far side of the celestial body later this month.
On April 11, ground controllers at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California will command the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) to carry out its final orbital maintenance maneuver prior to a total lunar eclipse on April 14-15.
NASA says the so-called ‘blood moon eclipse,’ lasting approximately four hours, will see the spacecraft face conditions “just on the edge of what it was designed to survive.”
Based on the size of the spacecraft and its impending hypervelocity impact, scientists expect the far side of the moon, which is permanently turned away from the earth and speckled with impact craters, to take another nasty shot.
"If you hit anything at 1,600 meters (5,250 feet) per second, that's not a landing you walk away from, so it's by no means gentle," Rick Elphic, LADEE project scientist, told reporters during a news conference on Thursday. "This is a very, very high-speed impact, and even though there's a possibility of tumbling across the surface, there's nothing gentle about it. You [LADEE] will be destroyed."
LADEE was launched on September 6 from the Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island on Virginia’s Atlantic shore. The facility is operated by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, whose headquarters is in Greenbelt, Maryland.
During its nominal 100-day scientific mission, LADEE, equipped with a dust detector, a neutral mass spectrometer, and an ultraviolet-visible spectrometer, was tasked with studying the lunar exosphere and dust in the Moon's vicinity.
An “exosphere” is an atmosphere that is so thin and tenuous that molecules don’t collide with each other. NASA says studying the Moon’s exosphere will help scientists better understand other planetary bodies which also have exospheres, like Mercury and some of Jupiter’s bigger moons.
The mission has also helped the agency test several new technologies, including a modular spacecraft bus, which could potentially reduce the cost of future deep space missions. A laser communications terminal on board was also used to demonstrate two-way high rate laser communication for the very first time from the Moon.
LADEE mission managers expect the spacecraft will crash land on the moon before April 21, though several factors could influence its estimated time of arrival.
The space agency has called on the general public to make their best guess at when the impact will occur under its ‘Take the Plunge LADEE Impact Challenge.’
Winners will receive a personalized NASA commemorative certificate.