Friday, 9 October 2009

Lunar Dust-up

Earlier today, NASA crashed the LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) spacecraft into the Moon. This wasn't sloppy driving, it was an attempt to look for evidence of water in Cabeus, a deep Lunar crater which lies in perpetual darkness. Telescopes from Earth were monitoring the results hoping to see ice and other material ejected by the impact.

From a scientific point of view, this is a pretty impressive. It's a tiny, 98 metre wide target to hit from a quarter of a million miles away - roughly the equivalent of hitting a golf ball in Lancaster and getting a hole-in-one in Brighton.

One valuable item of data to emerge so far is that the legions of the scientifically-illiterate cluttering up the interweb far exceeds expectations.

During the lead up to the impact it was a trending topic on Twitter. The twitterances were split between those following the science and those outraged it was happening. How dare we throw bombs at the moon, do we know what we're doing? What happens if we destroy it? Will we bring about Armageddon? (Here's a clue: No.)

Elsewhere in cyber space (where no one can hear you talk sense) there was a petition to President Obama wanting to (and I quote because I'm not inventive enough to make this up) stop the "US military-industrial-entertainment complex" from undertaking "a hostile act of aggression and a violent intrusion upon our closest and dearest celestial neighbor that will also have far reaching effects here on earth".

The petition was raised by the Chicago Surrealist Movement so it could be a spoof. But it’s too late - the clarion call has been taken up by moon-huggers everywhere.

There is a long and honourable history of finding out what stuff is made of by prodding it. NASA has been doing it since Apollo. The ascent stages of Apollos 12, 14, 15 and 17 were all deliberately crashed into the lunar surface. Seismometers, placed by the Apollo astronauts, were used to record the impact to get an idea of the moon's internal structure. (Sadly for Wallace and Grommit fans, it wasn't cheese.)

In the 1970s hippies didn't have an internet to bleat across. They probably congregated in San Francisco and sang mournful songs instead. If they did, no record exists, although this is probably a Good Thing.

Ironically, the LCROSS mission occurs ten years after the setting for Gerry Anderson’s TV series, Space 1999. If you missed it, this featured an explosion driving the moon out of orbit so the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha could have exciting space adventures whilst wearing flared trousers and talking in whispers. The biggest threat they encountered was Barry Morse's acting.

I watched the live NASA feed of the LCROSS impact and admit I was a little disappointed. I hoped the question of water on the moon would finally be settled. I anticipated seeing Elvis on a li-lo with Lord Lucan paddling nearby, possibly in the shade of a WW2 Nazi bomber. No luck. The screen went blank some seconds before impact. So that's another conspiracy theory shot down in flames … but who by and sponsored by what shadowy organisation?

It’s still daylight now but I assume the moon is still there. I'll have to wait until tonight to find out. On the whole, I'll be relieved if it is. It would be a shame if werewolves become an endangered species.

1 comment:

  1. "There is a long and honourable history of finding out what stuff is made of by prodding it." Excellent!

    Great post.