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Moon Shot Not Much to See, but Data Could Prove Exciting

NASA has successfully steered an empty rocket hull into the moon's south pole in a search for hidden ice.

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By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 10, 2009

For those wanting something flashy, the moon thud was a dud.

NASA's mission Friday morning was a scientific success, according to one of the agency's top officials, but it was anticlimactic for those watching the Internet feed or attending a special viewing on the big screen at the Newseum in downtown Washington. The moon didn't blow up -- or even flinch, as far as anyone could see.

The mission sent a rocket booster crashing into a shadowy crater at the moon's south pole. A shepherding spacecraft obtained images of the impact and then, as planned, crashed near the same spot.

NASA's black-and-white imagery showed the crater looming larger and larger as the spacecraft descended. But when the booster slammed into the moon, in the darkness of the crater, there was no obvious sign of a plume of dust -- or pulverized water ice, which is what NASA was hoping to find. Instead, the video feed went completely white.

That wasn't a malfunction, said Benjamin Neumann, director of NASA's Advanced Capabilities Division. It was more like a blinding flash.

"It was so bright, we saw white," Neumann said. "The instruments will have this data. It's a lot of energy, so it turns it to heat."

NASA scientists have said it will take a couple of weeks to analyze the data and determine whether the crater harbors ice. The LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) spacecraft was equipped with nine instruments; another seven instruments are onboard a NASA spacecraft in lunar orbit. The impacts were also observed by telescopes on Earth and in space, including the Hubble Space Telescope.

The mission was dedicated to the late broadcaster Walter Cronkite. His son, Chip, spoke at the Newseum event, where the impact was shown on a 40-foot screen. Referring to NASA's hope of finding water ice in the lunar crater, Cronkite said, "We hope this is just the first of many oases we find on our march through the stars."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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