A Great Party Even Without the Fireworks

For a dud, the LCROSS lunar impact sure was fun.

I was among 20 or more members of Salt Lake Astronomical Society who braved the chill Friday morning hoping for a glimpse of the plume of dust and ice that NASA promised would erupt from the moon when a rocket stage slammed into it.

Actually, I was the only one of the bunch to spend the whole night outside at the Stansbury Park Observatory Complex, Tooele County. It was the perfect occasion to straighten out my scope. By doing a system reset and then retraining the gears and the periodic error correction software, I eliminated corrupted data files that had crept in and prevented proper aiming.

Goal of the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Spacecraft was to check for ice that may be hidden in craters where the sun’s rays can’t reach. Spectrographs in the spacecraft were to analyze the plume kicked up by the impact, with scientists hoping to find chemical signatures of water and other substances.

Others began to show around 3 a.m. and immediately set to work connecting the observatory’s giant telescopes with video cameras; using computers to link onto NASA TV, which was supposed to show live pictures of the Centaur rocket’s impact taken by the trailing science platform before it too hit the moon; unloading gear from SUVs, and aiming the scopes.

By then I was experimenting with exposures for my impact views. The target was in a small crater near the lunar south pole. At that time the site was in the terminator, the swath of moonscape dividing night from day. One side was black, the other glaring white in the sun, and the section in the middle had long shadows that added drama to the scene.

[One view among scores I took of the target area Friday morning. I turned it upside-down from the way the moon was, making it easier to relate to. LCROSS’ target is close to the horizon. The large crater in the lower center is Clavius.]

The atmosphere was serene and clear. The moon was high, away from air turbulence near the horizon, and mostly remained free of wavering fluctuations. We heard a great horned owl softly hoo-ing.

When the moment arrived — 5:31.19 a.m. — we watched breathlessly. I kept busy making a series of photos through my telescope. Detecting a momentary brightness where I thought the impact should be, I squealed, “I think I saw something.” Later an excited roar came from inside one of the observatories, where a group was using the 32-inch-diameter Grim Telescope.

The squeal was in error; changes in contrast as the atmosphere moved had brightened a section briefly, making a flicker that looked like an explosive flare. The roar was a joke. With NASA TV showing no sign of a plume as the LCROSS science craft followed the Centaur to oblivion, they knew the fireworks never happened but wanted to pull some legs.

They told us the TV had shown nothing but the inky bottoms of craters, growing in size as the spacecraft hurtled in. But NASA engineers had cheered, leaving some to speculate other instruments had fired back their reports. Members of our group puzzled over the strange lack of any view of the impact, and some decided the black crater bottom had little dust but a great deal of hard basalt.

“Obviously it wasn’t the outcome we hoped for,” said Patrick Wiggins, NASA solar system ambassador to Utah, “but on the other hand, we’re just amateurs with amateur equipment. The important thing is obviously going to be what NASA finds.”

[Wiggins logging in at SPOC long before dawn Friday]

Using sensors that don’t rely on visible light such as infrared detectors, NASA could have found chemical signatures. “There’s no such thing as instant science,” and we may yet hear detailed results, he said.

Kurt Fisher, who had labored for months on an amateur scientist project concerning LCROSS, simply said, “I’ll see you next mission.”

“I’m disappointed that we didn’t see anything, but it wasn’t completely unexpected,” said Chuck Hards, who had hitched a video camera to one of the club’s telescopes. “It was a nice opportunity to get out under a nice clear sky with some old friends and look at the moon. So it wasn’t wasted.”

[Chuck Hards attaches video equipment to an observatory telescope]

When the moment approached, Siegfried Jachmann, vice president of SLAS, covered his head with a black cloth to keep stray light out as he peered through his telescope. He wasn’t fooled by the “orchestrated shouts.”

“We laughed, we knew they were faking it,” he noted by email.

“The conditions were about as perfect as one could hope for. The sky was clear, steady and the moon was high and right on the meridian. If there would have been anything to see, we would have seen it.

“Why didn’t we? We’d be speculating. We don’t know. Was the consistency of a crater in perpetual darkness different than those that bask in sunlight? We don’t know.”

Dave Bernson, president of SLAS, enjoyed the morning. As the group was packing up, he said, “It was a lovely lunar excursion for the club members, even if we didn’t see the sparkle from the impact debris.”

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