How low can they go?

Real-life meteor showers are not like what you see in movies — there are no flaming rocks barreling out of the sky blasting holes in buildings, or sending cars hurling many yards through the air. Most meteor showers are caused by debris left behind by comets, icy particles mixed with dust and organics that stand no chance of surviving their kamikaze death dives through Earth’s atmosphere. The meteors that actually do make it through, becoming meteorites when they strike ground, are very, very few in number and originate from asteroids (and much more rarely, Mars and the Moon). There are only a handful of recorded falls each year.

So how low can a Perseid get? The NASA all-sky cameras can provide the answer, at least for the bigger Perseids (inch or so across); the smaller particles burn up higher. Our two station camera network can determine the trajectory of a meteor through triangulation, and tell us the start height of the meteor (the location where it is first seen) and its end height (the location where it disappears or “burns up”). Both cameras observed 80 Perseids last year and 24 so far this year, which gives us enough data to tackle the problem.

We start out by taking the end heights of the Perseids and throwing them into 1 mile wide altitude bins. This results in the following graph:


Looking at the plot, it is apparent that most large Perseids burn up at about 56 miles (90 km) altitude. Some ablate as high as 65 miles (104 km), whereas others may get as low as 47 miles (76 km) altitude. We see none getting down to 45 miles or lower, which gives this old ground dweller a warm fuzzy feeling — I can enjoy the shower, secure in the knowledge that the meteors are going poof way up there.

It turns out that our friends the Perseids don’t get very low at all, ending their interplanetary journeys at least 46 miles above our heads.

LCROSS Hits Its Mark!

Onlookers participate in LCROSS pre-impact activities at NASA’s Ames
Research Center. Credit: NASA

The crowd at NASA Ames was poised and ready for impact as the LCROSS camera started sending back stunning images of the moon’s south pole. At impact, a flash or large plume wasn’t visible with the LCROSS camera, but even though we didn’t see it doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.

The LCROSS mission operations team initiated power-up of the LCROSS science
payload and captured this image of the moon. Credit: NASA

Mission scientists confirmed the LCROSS spacecraft monitored whatever the Centaur rocket lifted from the crater floor. At this time, it isn’t yet clear how much dust was raised but LCROSS Principal Investigator Tony Colaprete did confirm that the instruments onboard the sheparding spacecraft captured the Centaur impact crater.

Now mission scientists need more time to study the data. In the next few weeks, scientists will pore over the information to determine if water ice does exist in the Cabeus crater.

To stay up to date, be sure to follow the LCROSS website, the LCROSS twitter feed, and its Facebook page.

Impact from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter's Line of Sight

Scientist and engineers are adjusting LRO’s orbit to have it fly its closest approach to the Cabeus target site just 90 seconds after the Centaur impacts the lunar surface. 

Artist Concept of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter with Apollo mission
imagery in the background. Credit: NASA

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, better known as LRO, was a sister payload to LCROSS during launch and now the orbiter will pass over the moon at just the right time to capture the Centaur impact to collect key data about the physics of the impact and how volatile materials may have been mobilized.

This image shows the moon’s south pole, as seen by the 1994 Clementine
mission. The possibility of frozen water is one of many reasons NASA is
interested in thisspot as a potential future landing site. However, many of the
craters in this area where frozen water sources are most likely to be found are
in constant shadow, which inhibited Clementine’s ability to see into these craters.
These shadows are the very dark areas at the pole’s center. The upcoming
Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission will study this area and search for
evidence of frozen water sources. Credit: NASA

During and after impact LRO’s LAMP far UV spectrometer will search for evidence of significant water ice or water signatures and how they evolve in the moon’s atmosphere.  LRO’s Diviner radiometer will peer into the impact site to measure the heating effects caused by impact and how the temperature changes over time. LRO will continue to study the impact site using its suite of instruments long after the dust settles.

A Personal Perspective
David A. Paige, principal investigator Diviner
Diviner is one of the seven instruments aboard LRO

We on the LRO Diviner team are looking forward to the LCROSS impact with great anticipation. It’s not every day that we will have an opportunity to excavate a significant volume of material from one of the moon’s permanently shadowed polar cold traps.  We expect that a new lunar impact crater will form, and that dust, rock, and possibly cold-trapped volatile materials such as water ice will be thrown into space.

Everything we learn about the LCROSS impact will come from Earth observations and from observations from nearby spacecraft. Diviner will get excellent views of the impact site as LRO flies by. We intend to make maps of the radiometric temperature of the impact site before and after the impact, as well as observations of the dust plume that will be lofted during the impact event. Diviner’s observations may help confirm the location of the LCROSS impact, and its effects on the impact on the surrounding terrain. Diviner has already mapped the impact site on previous orbits and so any changes that are detected will be of great interest. We have no idea what LCROSS will uncover, but we’re anxious to know the results.

Diviner has acquired the first global daytime and nighttime thermal
maps of the moon. These maps were assembled using Diviner data obtained during
August and the first half of September, 2009. Credit: NASA/GSFC/UCLA

Hopefully, everything will go well for LCROSS and LRO on Friday morning and we’ll learn something new and exciting about the moon!

A New Look at an Old Neighbor

We have yet to uncover the full wealth of scientific information the moon holds. It at the cornerstone of understanding the birth and evolution of Earth and other planets, therefore we need to explore it.

The moon looks very unchanging and calm in the night sky and is rarely thought of as an active planetary body. What most people don’t know, is the moon receives LCROSS-sized impacts about once a week — that’s more than 50 impacts a year! It also is interesting to note that it experiences thousands of  “moonquakes” each year and releases energy by heat flow, electromagnetic conduction and tides from Earth and the Sun.

Moon’s Copernicus Crater — Lunar Orbiter Photo 1966 (Credit: NASA)

LCROSS is unique compared to the natural barrage of material impacting the moon because it’s designed to know exactly where and when it will impact — the Cabeus crater near the moon’s south pole.

 Craters of interest around the lunar south pole. LCROSS is targeting Cabeus A.
(Credit: NMSU/MSFC Tortugas Observatory)

Little is known about the moon’s permanently shadowed regions and we may find some unexpected results from this unique mission. The crater is more than two miles deep and may be one of the coldest places in the solar system. Scientists believe it has been void of sunlight for billions of years and represents an optimal location for determining if water ice exists on the moon.

Teams of scientists, engineers and astronomers across NASA, industry and academia are working tirelessly to advance space exploration and knowledge of our solar system with this mission. Now that LCROSS is two days away from impact, they still have a lot of work ahead of them. For example, they will observe the impacts, gather images of them, measure the quantity of water and identify its form and study the lunar soil.

This exciting mission promotes participatory exploration from the professional and amateur astronomy community, students and the general public.

During impact, at least twenty-five Earth-based observatories will be aimed at the Cabeus crater to witness the moment the lunar dust rises and is suspended in the sunlight to determine if it contains water vapor.

It's Almost Time!

It’s almost time!

It’s been over three months since the Atlas V soared from Cape Canaveral, Fla. into space carrying the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (“LCROSS” for short). Now it’s finally time for LCROSS to do its things and get up close and personal with the moon.

 An artist’s interpretation of NASA’s LCROSS spacecraft observing the first
impact of its rocket booster’s Centaur upper stage before heading in for its
own crash into the moon’s south pole. Credit: NASA

On Oct. 9 beginning at 6:30 a.m. CDT, the LCROSS spacecraft and heavier Centaur upper stage rocket will execute a series of procedures to separately hurl themselves toward the lunar surface to create a pair of debris plumes that will be analyzed for the presence of water ice. The Centaur is aiming for the Cabeus crater near the moon’s south pole and scientist expect it to kick up approximately ten kilometers (6.2 miles) of lunar dirt from the crater’s floor. 

Image of NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility. Credit: NASA

The sun never rises above certain crater rims at the lunar pole and some crater floors may not have seen sunlight for billions of years. With temperature estimated to be near minus 328 degrees Fahrenheit, these craters can ‘cold trap’ or capture most volatiles or water ice.

Earth-based radar image of the North Pole of the Moon, showing the position of the crater
Erlanger (arrow). Photo: Arecibo Observatory and NASA

On the day of impact, LCROSS at approximately 40,000 kilometers (25,000 miles) above the lunar surface will spin 180 degrees to turn its science payload toward the moon and fire thrusters to slow down. The spacecraft will observe the flash from the Centaur’s impact and fly through the debris plume. Data will be collected and streamed to LCROSS mission operations for analysis. Four minutes later, LCROSS also will impact, creating a second debris plume.

The LCROSS science team will lead a coordinated observation campaign that includes LRO, the Hubble Space Telescope, observatories on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea and amateur astronomers around the world.

It’s an exciting time for the most prominent object in our night sky with water being found on the surface last week by NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper — one of eleven scientific devices carried by the Chandrayaan-One spacecraft of the Indian Space Research Organization.

These images show a very young lunar crater on the side of the moon that faces away
from Earth, as viewed by NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper on the Indian Space
Research Organization’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft. Image credit: NASA

However, the Moon Mineralogy Mapper can only observe lunar soil to a depth of a few millimeters and the amount of water present in that layer is very small. It’s been said the driest deserts on Earth have more water than the surface of the moon near its poles. LCROSS could prove that water does exist deeper beneath the moon’s surface and present a valuable resource in the human quest to explore the solar system.

Astronaut James Irwin, lunar module pilot, gives a military salute while standing
beside the deployed U.S. flag during the Apollo 15 lunar surface extravehicular
activity (EVA) at the Hadley-Apennine landing site. Credit: NASA

Two ways to watch the impact:

Tune into NASA TV. The Agency will broadcast impact live from the moon, with coverage beginning Friday morning at 5:15 a.m. CDT. The first hour, pre-impact, will offer expert commentary, spacecraft status reports, and a computer-generated preview of the impacts.

Or you can watch in your backyard using your telescope. Viewing opportunities are best for the Pacific Ocean and western parts of North America due to absence of light and a good view of the Moon at the time of impact. Hawaii is the best place to be, with Pacific coast states of the USA a close second. Any place west of the Mississippi River, however, is a potential observing site.

W.M. Keck Observatory and the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility with Haleakala on
Maui in the distance as seen at sunset from Mauna Kea. Credit: John Fischer


It's Been Worth the Wait!

As a 30 year-old research assistant at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, I have a unique perspective of the Apollo missions. I was not alive when humans last walked on the moon; the Apollo missions were part of my parents’ generation. With live televised coverage from the lunar surface and glossy photo spreads in magazines, places like Tranquility Base, the Descartes Highlands, and Fra Mauro became familiar during the Apollo program. However after the final Apollo mission left the moon, many forgot these significant lunar landmarks. That changes today. With the amazing images of the Apollo landing sites taken through NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), the Apollo landing sites are once again significant for today’s generation.

These images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), released July 17, show
five of the six Apollo landing sites with arrows pointing out the lunar descent
module visible resting on the lunar surface. (NASA/GSFC/ASU)
View other images of the moon in our blog’s Flickr gallery.

The Apollo landing sites are no longer simply historic sites revealed through 40 year-old images taken by the Apollo astronauts.  Instead, they are dynamic landscapes that can be seen in a new light through LRO. These special areas on the moon now have a new life, with the help of a reminder that 40 years ago humans spent days exploring the surface of our neighbor in space.

For me, these photos have an additional dimension as they remind me of why I’ve always been interested in the moon. In the mid 1960s my father worked on the Apollo program, building parts for the astronauts’ backpacks, known as the Portable Life Support Systems (PLSS).  At the end of each lunar landing mission, in order to reduce the mass launched into lunar orbit, the astronauts would toss the PLSS’ onto the lunar surface; they were left behind and quickly forgotten. However, those who built the PLSS did not forget them. Before the packs were finished and shipped off, the engineers would etch their signatures on parts of the PLSS frame. So when the packs were left on the moon, the signatures also remained as a permanent monument to their achievements. So now when I look at these amazing photos, I can’t see those backpacks in these images, future images of the sites may show them, but I do see places where my dad’s name will be found forever.

This photo from the Apollo 17 mission shows the Portable Life Support Systems
backpack that Noah’s father worked on in the foreground. (NASA

LRO is an important mission for lunar scientists for many reasons. For me one of the most important reasons is that we’ll address many science questions that we’ve come up with in the 40 years since Apollo 11. How many craters have formed on the moon in the last 40 years? How deep are all those craters? LRO data will also help us plan for sending humans back to the moon, we’ll be able to find the safe and scientifically interesting places where humans can explore. So for the next decade or so, we will turn to data from LRO to select the places we want to send astronauts to for long periods of time. If I can’t be one of those astronauts, hopefully I’ll be able use the data from LRO to help train the astronauts that will go there. While the Apollo missions might have been for my parents’ generation, LRO is also for my generation, and for the generations that will follow. And maybe, one day, I’ll be able to get my name onto the lunar surface too!

Noah Petro, lunar geologist

Is the Moon a Planet,Too?

Lunar scientist Barbara Cohen explains how our moon functions very much like a planet.

You’ve all probably heard about the International Astronomical Union (IAU) decision to define a planet — probably because it clarified that there is a big belt of icy objects out beyond the orbit of Neptune, and we now know that Pluto is one of thousands of them. The IAU definition also excludes moons from being planets. But did you know our moon functions like a planet? It has a lot to teach us about how planets form and evolve.

Solar system rendering of the eight planets. (Image credit: Koolang Astronomical
Observatory and Science Display Center)
View more blog images

Like the Earth, our moon has a crust, a mantle and a core. These interior layers we think are present on most planets, even if the crust is made of rock or ice. Mars probably has a crust, mantle, and core, and so do Venus and Mercury. The rocks we brought back from the moon from the Apollo missions helped us learn that this process of forming internal layers, or differentiation, is a common process on all planets. So when the moon formed, it formed like a planet.

Another hallmark of planets is that they have active geology. The big, dark splotches you see on the moon’s surface are lava flows. Yes, there were active volcanoes on the moon. There aren’t any volcanic cones, because the lava was very fluid and flowed out through cracks and into low-lying areas. The Apollo samples contain small beads of volcanic glass that tell us there were giant fire-fountains on the moon too. Though volcanic activity on the moon ended about 3 billion years ago, the Apollo missions picked up thousands of earthquakes on the moon, or moonquakes. Moonquakes tell us that the moon is not geologically dead. It’s still acting like a planet today.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. (Image credit: Photo Credit: National Park Service)

My favorite part about planets is their impact craters, formed when asteroids or comets whizz into our part of space and collide. When you look at the moon, you can see that it preserves many impact craters on it for researchers like me to study. Did you know that all the craters you see on the moon (and there are hundreds of thousands of them!) had counterparts on the Earth at one point? We don’t see many impact craters on Earth today because the Earth’s crust continually renews itself and erases old rocks and formations.  No one rock on Earth is older than 4 billion years. The Earth definitely got beat up by impacts from comets and asteroids in its past — and that record is preserved for us to study on the moon.

For me, the best thing about the moon is that it may not be defined as a planet, but it definitely acts like one. Studying the moon allows us to learn about how all planets work. And because the moon is ancient, it’s like a time capsule back into the early days of our solar system. But, I also love that the moon looks so beautiful reflecting sunlight to us on dark nights and I can’t wait to get more information from our two lunar missions. Godspeed LRO and LCROSS!

LCROSS Captured in Flight by Amateur Astronomer

On June 29, 2009, as part of the LCROSS Observation Campaign, Paul Mortfield, an avid amateur astronomer and frequent contributer to NASA missions, took a series of images of the LCROSS Shepherding Spacecraft and Centaur as they passed through the night sky. LCROSS is currently orbiting the Earth-moon system on its 5,592,000 mile (9,000,000 km) journey to the moon.

Capturing these images is no easy feat. The spacecraft is only 47 feet (14.5 m) long with a diameter of 10 feet (3 m). At the time of the images were taken, the spacecraft was approximately 288,100 miles (463,700 km) from Earth, traveling at a speed of 0.58 miles/sec (0.94 km/s).

The images were taken with an Apogee U16M 4Kx4K CCD Camera attached to a Ritchey-Chretian 16″f/8.9 telescope and a focal length of 3,530 mm. The image scale is 1.04 arcsec/pixel and the frames were binned 2×2. Each exposure was 60 sec in length to show enough trailing of the spacecraft.

For more information about Paul Mortfield, visit:

To participate in the LCROSS Observation Campaign for amateur astronomers, visit:

Paul's Personal Perspective — Written During Launch Week

Paul Mortfield here at Kennedy Space Center anxiously waiting to see my first launch. I’m with the David Dunlap Observatory just outside Toronto, Canada. The observatory’s 74″ telescope will be participating in the LCROSS NASA observation network for this mission.  We’re excited to have Canada’s largest telescope participating and helping the NASA team.

We just finished doing the LCROSS webcast at Kennedy talking about all the exciting things amateur astronomers and backyard skygazers can do to participate in this NASA mission back to the moon. Amateurs across North America have already been taking images of the polar regions of the moon to help characterize the region near the potential impact sites.

We’re looking for many amateurs to photograph the impact plume to help the scientists further characterize it and compare the images with their observations from the huge telescopes in Hawaii. This is truly an exciting time and a beginning of new era of amateurs participating with NASA missions.

Photo of the David Dunlap Observatory outside Toronto, Canada.
Photo of the David Dunlap Observatory outside Toronto, Canada. Image: Kerry-Ann Lecky Hepburn

New Moon Missions — and New Generations

NASA encourages the investment in our nation’s young minds through a myriad of education programs. The agency has traditionally played a key role in preparing, inspiring, exciting, educating and nurturing the young minds of today, who will be the workforce of tomorrow. Two students involved with the Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope program (GAVRT) program were on hand to observe the June 18 launch of LRO/LCROSS. 

 The GAVRT program enables students to operate and control a 110-foot, 500-ton deep space radio telescope located at NASA’s Deep Space Communication Complex at Goldstone, California. This program is a partnership between NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), along with the Lewis Center for Educational Research.

The program allows students to actually take control of the massive satellite dish via the Internet to study a variety of radio sources in space. Students collect and analyze data that goes into a database used by professional scientists worldwide. Much of the student data are published in professional journals, which demonstrates to students the importance of their data and contributes to the “team building” goals of the GAVRT program.

The Purpose of the GAVRT program is to provide students and educators with curriculum vehicles that will promote science literacy, support a better understanding of the scientific community, and to provide the opportunity to collect real-time data with sophisticated science equipment through distance learning.

Alicia and Chase share their experiences in the posts below.


Alicia Scarberry

A once in a lifetime experience along with simple and joyous laughter is the perfect memory. These memories will last a lifetime. I have to say that these memories mean more to me than any before. I honestly feel that most people never reach the sincere state of gratitude and appreciation for life that I have found from this trip. I am known to be a very very very friendly human being, but even I cannot find the words to come close to showing what these days and these people mean to me. Today was the LCROSS Launch!!!! The weather began to change and people were talking about changing the date. People would be the happiest of their life at one point and then a few minutes later, be filled with sadness. So many people came together for this launch and there was unbelievable desire for success.

I wanted the LRO/ LCROSS to launch not only for me to see, but for those who had put all their passion, conviction, and drive into making this mission a great achievement. When the rocket launched, I had a wave of utter bliss and joy run through me. I have to say seeing Brian Day glow was a definite highlight! I loved seeing other members of the LCROSS Team crying with happiness. All around I will cherish that moment for as long as I live. It was so great to see the flames, the smoke, and ohhh man the noise was unlike anything I have ever heard. There was a great and powerful rumble throughout the sky. It was an awesome sight to see!

I can say that this trip has changed my life. The GAVRT Program has changed my life and has provided me with the chance to see my very greatest potential. I have not only gained a profound love for science, but I have learned to believe in myself. We need to come to the realization that now is our time to shine. The GAVRT Program gives anyone the chance to be a hero. You! Yep, you can be involved! You can help NASA’s return to the moon. From children to grandparents, anyone can participate. My heart is filled with excitement for this Mission. The partnership of GAVRT and NASA is just beginning.

The future has no boundaries and the present is ready for you to be an explorer, be an inspiration, and most of all make a difference in this world. It is so easy. I have been blessed to be a part of such a wonderful organization and I would love to see many more students with the incredible opportunities I have been given. I have taken so much from these experiences. I have learned the importance of trust, ambition, confidence, and most of all hope. I have learned that one human being can have an outstanding impact on this world. But more importantly that a group unified and filled with trust and humility can make any dreams come true. I am ready to make an imprint in the world of science, ready to discover, and most of all…ready to inspire people just the way that these wonderful people have inspired me. Thank you to all for your kindness and most of all for having faith in me.

Chase Baines

When I look back on this Florida journey years from now, I will have many memories. Of all the great memories I have had here, today was definitely the highlight. Today served as the culmination of many astronauts, scientists, and engineers work for the past five years. With all of the excitement that occurred to today, it is ironic how the launch was just minutes away from possibly being scrubbed. Thank goodness it wasn’t.

The day started out well as we returned to Cape Canaveral. Our first stop was the Astronaut Hall of Fame. Although we only had a few minutes to spend at the Hall of Fame, we saw a lot while we were there. We got to see a lot of different equipment and displays from the Apollo missions. After our time at the HOF concluded, we headed back to Kennedy Space Center. At KSC, we saw our second 3D IMAX film in the last two days. This film talked about the different tasks that have been completed over the years at the International Space Station. After the film, we began to prepare to board the bus to head out to the launch viewing area. After about an hour, we went out to the point where we would view the Atlas V rocket launch. Unfortunately, about thirty minutes prior to the first launch time slot, it appeared as if the LCROSS launch would be delayed yet again until Friday. Although some might not understand why one day would make that much of a difference, it would be quite disheartening for our GAVRT (Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope) if the launch was delayed because we are heading home tomorrow. The reason for the concern was due to potential thunderstorms in the area.

To our delight, we soon found out that it would indeed be safe for the rocket to launch. One of the best memories of the day occurred about five minutes before the launch. Our fine country’s national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner, was triumphantly played over the speakers. As I listened to the anthem, it was amazing to feel how much patriotism was in the air. As I heard the words I thought about all of the astronauts who had risked their lives in hopes of improving space exploration. It is because of great men and women like the Apollo 1 and Challenger crews, who gave their lives for their country in the name of astronomy. Without their efforts, it is unlikely that America would be in the position that it is today; on the verge of returning to the moon. The launch finally arrived and it was nothing short of spectacular. The countdown felt like an eternity as we thought about what was to come in the future plans of NASA. As the rocket ascended above the clouds, we all knew that a new era of lunar exploration had arrived, and it was vibrantly illustrated far above us.

I will never forget the extraordinary memories I have had on this trip. I am anxiously looking forward to tracking LCROSS as it grows closer to its’ lunar impact.

Good night!

Kim Bunnell
Lewis Center for Educational Research
Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope (GAVRT) Program

It almost didn’t happen. Over 2,000 miles, lost luggage, little sleep, approaching storm; but at about 5:20pm EDT today, we heard the words, “We are green for launch!”  Cheers erupted amongst the bleachers that held hundreds of people. It was an incredible event (and very difficult to take photos as all I wanted to do was stare!).  It seemed to move in slow motion at first but soon disappeared in the ubiquitous clouds.  I felt very blessed to witness the event in person (in fact, I highly recommend it if you ever get the chance!).

One of the most memorable things I noticed was the team or family atmosphere that surrounded Kennedy Space Center.  Individuals from all over the United States worked on either LRO or LCROSS, yet the respect they had for each other was profound.  There were so many different teams coming together as one. It felt like attending a family reunion. Their emotions were evident on their faces and all were choked to see the spacecraft finally lift off.

Thank you to everyone at NASA Ames Research Center, especially Brian Day, for inviting GAVRT to be a part of your program and for allowing me take part in this exciting event. 

Good luck, God Bless, and God speed!