Friday, October 09, 2009

Lunar crashes: No plume, just ... data.

Moon crash: Public yawns, scientists celebrate
WASHINGTON — NASA's great lunar fireworks finale fizzled. After gearing up for the space agency's much-hyped mission to hurl two spacecraft into the moon, the public turned away from the sky Friday anything but dazzled. Photos and video of the impact showed little more than a fuzzy white flash.

In social media and live television coverage, many people were disappointed at the lack of spectacle. One person even joked that someone hit the pause button in mission control.

Yet scientists involved in the project were downright gleeful. Sure, there were no immediate pictures of spewing plumes of lunar dust that could contain water, but, they say, there was something more important: chemical signatures in light waves. That's the real bonanza, not pictures of geyser-like eruptions of debris, the scientists said.

The mission was executed for "a scientific purpose, not to put on a fireworks display for the public," said space consultant Alan Stern, a former NASA associate administrator for science.

Scientists said the public expected too much. The public groused as if NASA delivered too little.

The divide was as big as a crater.


The key is not in photographs but in squiggly lines that show those complicated light waves, Colaprete said. Once they are analyzed — a task that may take weeks — the light waves will show whether water was present at the crash site.

"It wasn't a dud. We got a gold mine of data,"
said Kaku, a professor at the City College of New York and host of "Sci Q Sundays" on the Science Channel. If those squiggly lines show there is ice just under the surface of the moon, it would make the lack of pictures worth it, he said.

"Ice is more valuable than gold on the moon," Kaku said.

For about a decade, scientists have speculated about buried ice below the moon's poles. Then surprising new research last month indicated that there seem to be tiny amounts of water mixed into the lunar soil all over the moon, making the moon once again a more interesting target for scientists.

But a discovery of ice later this month would not be quite the same as seeing promised flashes through a telescope. [...]

NASA should not have hyped it up so much. Data that may only be weeks or months away is boring to the public.

I hope they do find water. If they don't, then our back-to-the-moon program could be scrapped.


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