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August 30, 2006

Hey! Something just crashed into the moon!

artist rendering of the SMART-1 spacecraft

Don't get your hopes up, don't get all over-excited and blame me if this whole thing is a bust, but there's a chance you may see something crash into the moon this Saturday night.

The SMART-1 spacecraft has been orbiting the moon since 2004, making lunar observations and testing a new ion-drive propulsion system. Now the spacecraft has used up its fuel supply, so the controllers at the European Space Agency are letting SMART-1 drop down and plow into the lunar surface.

So, how do you see the impact? ESA scientists predict that SMART-1 will plow a shallow crater 3-10 meters wide and 1 meter deep into the Lake of Excellence at 10:41 pm PDT September 2, 2006 (01:41 pm EDT, or 05:41 UT September 3). Impact should occur at the lunar coordinates of 36.44 degrees South and 46.25 degrees West. To those of us who don't deal with lunar longitude and latitude on a daily basis (you know who you are), this translates to the lower left corner of the moon, just inside of the dark part. You can try to see the impact with the naked eye, but using binoculars or even a cheap telescope will vastly improve your chances of seeing something cool. The impact may appear to be a quick flash of an explosion, or a diffuse white glow (caused by lunar dust that gets tossed up and illuminated by sunlight).

That impact time is the current best guess of the navigators at the ESA. But since the spacecraft is falling down to the moon at a very shallow angle (picture a airplane coming in for a landing, as opposed to a rock falling from the sky), and since we don't have perfect topographic maps of the moon, it's possible that the SMART-1 could clip a hill and crash several hours earlier, or that the valley is deeper than expected and SMART-1 could crash a bit later than the predicted time. (The SMART-1 website will be updated with the latest crash predictions as the event gets closer).

The Planetary Society website has a good write-up on the SMART-1 crash.

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Posted by Chris Spurgeon at August 30, 2006 08:14 AM

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