Academics and Research / Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

DU monitors as NASA crashes the moon for science

University of Denver Associate Professor Robert Stencel opened the University’s historic Chamberlin Observatory early Oct. 9 and joined members of the Denver Astronomical Society to watch as NASA sent a probe crashing into the moon’s surface.

The DU-based moon gazers hitched a video camera to the end of the observatory’s telescope to record the moment when NASA’s payload kicked up a plume of moon dust for analysis. The entire scenario, from landing an object on the moon to digitally recording it, is probably something founders of the observatory couldn’t imagine when the telescope was first put to use in 1894.

While the video camera and telescope worked flawlessly, the event didn’t turn out to be a spectacular visual show. NASA reports the impact occurred in the shadow of a crater, hidden from viewers on Earth. Nevertheless, NASA scientists say the experiment did yield a wealth of data.

For the mission, dubbed Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), the probe traveled 5.6 million miles on a 113-day trip destined to end with a crash into the Cabeus crater, near the moon’s south pole.

Stencel says if tests show significant amounts of water in the moon’s permafrost, it could make establishment of a moon colony for scientific research more plausible.

“If we could find enough water on the moon it would mean we would not have to haul it there if we were to colonize,” Stencel says. “It would be a fabulous resource”

He adds previous missions have in the past located at least some trace of water associated with the moon.

The LCROSS mission is also significant because it marks NASA’s first return to the moon in years and demonstrates a renewed interest at a time when India, Japan, China and European countries have all stepped up moon studies, Stencel says.

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