A moon rock lands in Duluth

Chelsea Paulson, 5, of Saginaw, holds her grandfather Randy Paulson's hand as she studies the Apollo moon rock inside a lucite pyramid at NASA's Journey to Tomorrow traveling exhibit at the Home Show at the DECC Thursday evening. The rock (seen in the inset at upper left) was collected by Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt in December 1972. It's about 3 inches across, weighs 152 grams (1/3 lb.) and is 3.9 billion years old. Credit: Bob King

Chelsea Paulson, 5, of Saginaw, holds her grandfather Randy Paulson’s hand while looking at the Apollo moon rock inside a lucite pyramid at NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow traveling exhibit at the Home Show in Duluth, Minn. Thursday. The rock was collected by Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan in December 1972. Credit: Bob King

A priceless moon rock lies locked in a glowing pyramid of lucite a few blocks from Lake Superior in Duluth today. NASA’s “Journey to Tomorrow” traveling exhibit pulled into town a few days ago, and among the displays is a palm-sized lunar rock collected by Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan sometime on December 13,1972.

Closer view of the 152 gram polycrystalline moon rock returned from the moon during the Apollo 17 mission to the Taurus-Littrow highlands. Credit: Bob King

Closer view of the 152 gram polycrystalline moon rock returned from the moon during the Apollo 17 mission to the Taurus-Littrow highlands. Credit: Bob King

The 152 gram (1/3 lb.) concrete-gray rock measures about 3 inches (7.6 cm) across. It was part of a larger rock picked up by Cernan on his third moonwalk with fellow astronaut Harrison Schmitt. Moon-drive might be a better description. The two boarded the Lunar Rover that Wednesday evening and drove 2.5 miles (4 km) northeast of their landing site in Taurus-Littrow Valley, a relatively smooth area snaking between the rugged peaks of the Taurus Mountains just beyond the lava plains of the Sea of Serenity.

Astronauts often used tongs to pick up lunar samples. It was a lot easier than bending over in bulky space suits to pick up a rock. The rock in the NASA exhibit was likely collected this way. Credit: NASA

Astronauts often used tongs to pick up lunar samples. It was a lot easier than bending over in bulky space suits to pick up a rock. The rock in the NASA exhibit was likely collected this way. Credit: NASA

During one of their stops to collect samples, Cernan’s curiosity must have been peaked by the rock’s appearance. Using a set of tongs (or possibly a hammer to bust a chip off a larger formation), he retrieved the sample and dropped it in a bag. Schmitt and Cernan later placed the bags into specially sealed storage boxes and loaded them — along with our featured rock — into the lunar module ascent stage for the trip back to lunar orbit and Earth.

After Apollo 17 safely landed, the boxes were taken to the Lunar Receiving Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center near Houston, Texas and opened in a vacuum chamber to avoid contamination by the atmosphere. Before our 152 gram “rock star” began its 50-state tour, it was sliced (hence the smooth face on one side), classified and its age determined by radioactive dating methods.

This is as close as I could get to the moon rock. Not only was it contained in lucite, it was also in a glass case. You can easily see cracks formed by impact bombardment as well as tiny holes or vesicles where gases escaped when the rock was melted and or re-heated during an impact. Credit: Bob King

This is as close as I could get. Not only was the rock contained in lucite, it was behind glass. You can easily see cracks and melt veins formed by impact bombardment as well as tiny holes or vesicles where gases escaped when the rock partially melted an impact. Credit: Bob King

It looks so ordinary to the eye. Like I said, a gray rock. I’ve seen better tossed up by the waves of Lake Superior. But before you lies a 3.9 billion-year-old stone far older than most Earth rocks.

The outside of the moon rock is darker than the inside. This is probably caused by "space weathering" or radiation and high-speed particles from the Sun that slowly darken the moon's surface over time.  Credit: Bob King

The outside of the moon rock is darker than the inside. This is probably caused by “space weathering” – radiation and high-speed particles from the Sun that slowly darken the moon’s surface over time. Younger craters on the moon are much brighter than older because the impacts plow up dust and debris from under the surface that haven’t be exposed to the Sun for millions or billions of years. Credit: Bob King

Here in Duluth, we admire the tough 1.1 billion-year-old lava formations that tower above the waves of Lake Superior and underlie the region for miles. Ancient for sure, but the traveling moon rock provides a fresh perspective on exactly how old is old. It solidified just 400 million years after the moon itself took shape from the debris released during the cataclysmic impact of a Mars-sized planet with Earth.

This is the traveling moon rock's home base - the Apollo 17 landing site,  photographed  by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Click for a larger view. Credit: NASA

This is the traveling moon rock’s home base – the Apollo 17 landing site, photographed by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Click for a larger view. Credit: NASA

The display next to the sample describes it as a “polycrystalline breccia” or rock composed of many older crystalline rocks melded together. The vast majority of rocks gathered by the Apollo astronauts are rock fragments or breccias cemented together through impact. Is it any surprise? The early moon was a devil’s playground of non-stop bombardment by meteoroids and asteroids. Each impact crushed and re-mixed the crustal rocks, creating oodles of fragments. Breccia within breccia.

Check out the melt veins, cracks and vesicles (little holes) in the cut face — all indications of the violence that visited not only the moon but all the planets and moons during the solar system’s formative years.

Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan checks out the Lunar Rover before he and Harrison Schmitt head out for another moonwalk. On the day our featured rock was found, the astronauts collected 146 pounds of lunar samples. Credit: NASA

Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan checks out the Lunar Rover before he and Harrison Schmitt head out for another moonwalk. On the day our featured rock was found, the astronauts collected 146 pounds of lunar samples. These were the last rocks to date brought back from the moon by the United States. Credit: NASA

You can see all this history wrapped up in a single rock with your own eyes still today. The big NASA truck with the moon rock and other space-themed exhibits will be open through 5 p.m. today (April 12) at the annual Home and Builder Show at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center (DECC). If you can’t make it, the traveling exhibit may be coming to a town near you, although they don’t have a set schedule. For more information, click HERE.

Apollo landing sites. Apollo 17's location is highlighted in red. Credit: Soerfm

Apollo landing sites. Apollo 17’s location is highlighted in red. Credit: Soerfm

Mars gets a new crater, smiles for the camera

This new crater excavated by an impacting meteorite on Mars shows a striking pattern of ejecta – rocks and other debris blasted off the surface during the impact. The shape of the ejecta indicate that the incoming space rock likely struck from the west (left). Credit: NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona

Close your eyes. OK, now open them again. In a cosmic blink of the eye, this brand new crater appeared on the Martian plain called Elysium. It formed sometime between February 2012 and June 2014 as revealed by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). A previous image showed only ancient cratered terrain.

Before (left) and after photos show relatively smooth plain with numerous older crater and the fresh impact (right). Credit: NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona

The impact exposed removed the ubiquitous orange-hued dust to reveal darker materials beneath the surface. The crater’s rim has a sharp outline showing virtually zero erosion. Some of the smaller, irregular divots near the strike were formed when huge chunks of rock from the impact fell back to the surface creating secondary craters.

A closer-in view shows how sharp and fresh the crater’s rim is. One way astronomers estimate relative ages of craters by examining how sharp or soft their rims appear. Click for hi-res image. Credit: NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona

This is far from the first fresh crater recorded at Mars by orbiting spacecraft. More than 400 have been found over the years as researchers pour over the hundreds of thousands of images returned by probes like MRO. Although I have no indication how large our featured crater is, the largest new crater ever discovered on the planet measures 161 feet (49-meters) or half the length of a U.S. football field.

How Mars’ largest new crater was discovered

We wrap up today with a big smile from the Red Planet’s south polar cap. MRO takes images throughout the Martian year (687 Earth days) of the polar regions to document changes in carbon dioxide ice coverage. Mars’ polar regions contain both water and CO2 ices which vaporize in the spring and summer heat, causing the caps to shrink back toward their respective poles.

The residual polar cap at Mars south pole in the summer season is rich in carbon dioxide or dry ice. Ice vaporizing in sunlight created as series of low mounds that resemble a smiling face. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona

This fun photo was taken last November 30th and depicts an area about 1/3-mile across (500 meters) that resembles a smiley face. Just as sunlight and wind sculpts wild patterns in snow and ice on Earth, so too on Mars.

Happy nights adrift on the Moon’s Sea of Showers

Over 700 miles across, Mare Imbrium (Sea of Rains) is the largest lunar sea. Its roughly circular shape is defined by a series of mountains ranges just coming into good view tonight and the next few nights. Credit: Joseph Brimacombe

If you’re looking for a great little place to point a small telescope the next few nights, let me suggest Mare Imbrium, the largest of the lunar “seas”. That’s Latin for Sea of Showers or Sea or Rains. Lovely name. The last time it rained there was never.

Wide view of the whole Moon with the Imbrium basin circled. While Imbrium is the largest lava-filled “sea”, the largest basin, the South Pole-Aitkin Basin, is 1,600 miles in diameter. Credit: Silvercat/Wikipedia

All the Moon’s seas are enormous basins excavated by asteroid impacts between 3.1 and 4.2 billion years ago. Cracks and fissures in the Moon’s crust from the collisions served as conduits for deeper lava to rise and fill the basins with molten rock. These great pools cooled and solidified, forming the large grey spots that make up the face of the Man in the Moon that even a child notices today.

Ruptures in the Moon’s crust caused by the impact of large meteorites/asteroids creates what astronomers call multi-ringed basins. They look like bulleyes, a fitting comparison under the circumstances. Credit: Steven Dutch

Many of the seas are ringed by mountain ranges formed by faulting of the lunar crust during the impacts aided by slumping of material off the fresh slopes.

Earth’s mountains in contrast are lifted up when tectonic plates collide or pile up during volcanic eruptions.

Three ranges shape the outer boundary of the Sea of Rains – the Carpathians, the majestic Apennines and Caucasus. The Alps form part of a second inner ring of peaks. Each is named for its sibling range in Europe. Over the next few nights we’ll see all four cast awesome shadows as the Sun rises over their craggy peaks.

This is how our featured region of the Moon will appear tonight from the Americas. Mountain ranges are labeled in black, craters in white. Credit: Virtual Moon Atlas / Patrick Chevalley and Christian Legrande

Tonight features the Alps, Apennines and Caucasus and the spectacular craters Plato and Copernicus. Tomorrow night, the Carpathians, north of Copernicus, come into view. The reason these features look most dramatic now rather than closer to full Moon is because the terminator cuts across the region. Along the terminator, the boundary separating lunar day from night, the Sun is just rising and every little peak casts a shadow.

The Apennines Mountains is host to the Moon’s tallest mountain, Mt. Huygens, with an elevation of 18,046 feet (5.5 km). Credit: M. Galfalk, G. Olofsson, and H.-G. Floren; SIRCA camera Nordic Optical Telescope with annotation by the author

While binoculars will reveal Plato, Copernicus and the mountain rings, a small telescope will show the scene best. I wish you a clear and not-too-cold night!

Found! Fresh moon crater from LADEE spacecraft impact

Before and after photos show the new crater blasted out by the impact of the LADEE spacecraft. It’s the white spot a short distance to the upper right of the prominent crater in the center and measures less than 10 feet (3-m) across.  Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

I’d love to see that ad on Craigslist. Using before and after photos taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC), Mark Robinson, LROC principal investigator, discovered a tiny crater within one-fifth of a mile (300-m) of the predicted impact zone. And I do mean tiny. The impact of the refrigerator-sized spacecraft at the relatively leisurely speed of 3,800 miles an hour (1,699 meters per second) excavated a hole under 10 feet across or as big as your bathroom.

LRO close up photo of the LADEE impact site on the eastern rim of Sundman V crater. The bright area highlights what has changed between the time of the two images, specifically the impact point and the ejecta. The ejecta pattern spreads to the northwest, consistent with the direction the spacecraft was traveling when it smacked into the surface. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

NASA’s LADEE or Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Explorer’s mission studied dust hovering in the Moon’s extremely rarefied atmosphere called the exosphere. Much of the dust sputters off the surface during meteorite impacts, but some may be lofted into the sky by electrostatic forces active when the sun rises along the day-night borderline called the terminator. As the probe used up the last of its fuel, engineers lowered its orbit to study the lunar environment in ever greater detail. Variations in lunar topography and gravity soon brought it crashing to the surface on April 17 this year on the farside of the Moon.

LADEE only had so much fuel to conduct operations at the moon. When that was used up, the mission was complete. The vending-machine-sized probe broke apart as it heated up upon impact. Credit: NASA Ames/Dana Berry

The small size of the LADEE crater relates to the relatively slow impact speed (meteorites strike at a much higher velocity) as well as the craft’s small size and low density. To find it, investigators had to develop special software that compared before and after images to find the slightest changes between them. The impact popped into view much the same way before and after images of the sky are compared to detect moving asteroids.

Despite the crater’s tiny dimension, the crashing spacecraft managed to eject a plume of bright lunar dust 656-984 feet (200-300 meters) from the impact site. Future astronauts will likely find metal shrapnel from the probe mingled with lunar dust downstream from the impact.

“I’m happy that the LROC team was able to confirm the LADEE impact point,” said Butler Hine, LADEE project manager at Ames Research Center in California. “It really helps the LADEE team to get closure and know exactly where the product of their hard work wound up.”

In a memorable mess of an impact that will remain visible for millions of years.

Mars got a black eye this March

A large, fresh crater on Mars resulting from an impact sometime on March 27-28 this year. The main crater’s 159 by 143 feet (49-meter diameter). It’s surrounded by secondary craters (circled) probably formed from impact debris crashing down on the surface after the crater was excavated. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona

Let’s face it. We’re all sitting ducks. Planets get whacked routinely by space debris. Most of it gets burned up in our atmosphere; a few pieces occasionally fall to the ground every year as meteorites. Mars is in the same boat. With a difference. It’s atmosphere is much thinner than Earth’s, allowing smaller meteoroids to penetrate to the surface.

This pair of images was taken 1 day apart by the lower resolution weather camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The left image was taken during Martian afternoon on March 27, 2012; the right one on the afternoon of March 28, 2012.The dark area in the “after” image is about 5 miles (8 kilometers) wide and marks the spot of the new crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA’s orbiters have to date discovered about 400 fresh craters on the Red Planet using before and after photos taken from orbit. Recently, the largest ever impact crater in the solar system confirmed by this method was spotted on Mars by a scientist Bruce Cantor who studies the daily images taken with the Mars Reconnaissance’s weather-monitoring camera. His eye caught a dark spot in late March that wasn’t there the last time he looked.

Before and after pictures taken with the Context camera on MRO. Left photo was taken on Jan. 16, 2012; right photo on April 6. The dual-impact crater stands out clearly. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

When the more powerful cameras on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter zoomed in for a look, they revealed a fresh impact scar half as long as a football field (49-meters) with a good-sized secondary crater biting into the main crater’s south rim. Scientists suspect the original meteoroid broke up into many pieces on atmospheric entry creating not only the secondary crater but a smattering of smaller craters (circled above) in the vicinity. It’s also possible that chunks of crust blown out by the impact fell back and gouged out some of the smaller depressions.

Fresh landslides created by the shock wave from the impact darkened the slopes in the 5-mile area surrounding the new craters. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Working through older images, Cantor was able to narrow the time of the crater’s formation to sometime between the afternoon of March 27 and the following afternoon March 28. This is the narrowest time interval in which a crater-forming event has ever been observed.

Alfred McEwen, principal investigator MRO’s high resolution camera, estimates the impact object measured about 10 to 18 feet (3 to 5 meters) long, or less than a third the estimated length of the asteroid that hit Earth’s atmosphere near Chelyabinsk, Russia last year.

Sentinel Mission would spy ‘city-killing’ asteroids in the nick of time

B612 foundation video showing locations of 26 asteroid impacts between 2000 and 2013

Poor Earth. Always getting whacked by asteroids. Now it’s time to do something about it. This week, the B612 Foundation, a private organization dedicated with protecting the planet from potential asteroid impacts, announced plans to build the Sentinel Infrared Space Telescope to detect Earth-approaching asteroids long before they get here.

The Chelyabinsk meteoroid / asteroid, here seen from a dashcam video, was the largest impact in Earth’s atmosphere recorded by the nuclear test ban treaty network’s infrasound’s sensors since 2000. Before it exploded into smaller pieces, the asteroid measured about 65 feet across.

Data recently released from the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, which operates a network of sensors that monitors Earth around the clock listening for the low frequency infrasound signature of nuclear detonations, recorded 26 large explosions in the atmosphere not from weapons but rather from small asteroid impacts. The largest of them was the headline-making Chelyabinsk fireball that exploded in the atmosphere with the force of 600-kilotons of TNT on Feb. 15, 2013. To put this in perspective, the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima had the energy of 15 kilotons.

Another fireball over Murmansk, Russia reminiscent of Chelyabinsk occurred Saturday night April 19. No sounds or explosions were heard but the object burned briefly as bright as the full moon. Video courtesy: Alexandr Nesterov

Most of the 26 impacts were smaller than Chelyabinsk and detonated high in the atmosphere over uninhabited regions like the oceans. Asteroid impacts greater than 20 kilotons occurred over South Sulawesi, Indonesia in 2009, the Southern Ocean in 2004, and Mediterranean Sea in 2002.

“While most large asteroids with the potential to destroy an entire country or continent have been detected, less than 10,000 of the more than a million dangerous asteroids with the potential to destroy an entire major metropolitan area have been found by all existing space or terrestrially-operated observatories,” stated Lu, CEO and co-founder of B612. “Because we don’t know where or when the next major impact will occur, the  only thing preventing a catastrophe from a “city-killer” sized asteroid has been blind luck.”

Sentinel would circle the sun inside Earth’s orbit and look outward to spy incoming Earth-crossing asteroids. The B612 Foundation hopes to raise private money to build the probe. Credit: B612 Foundation

The B612 Foundation (named after the asteroid in the novella “The Little Prince”) will partner with Ball Aerospace to privately build the Sentinel spacecraft that would launch in 2018 into a Venus-like orbit on a 6.5 year mission to find and track 90% of the asteroids larger than 460 feet (140 meters) with orbits that intersect Earth’s. It will also search for smaller asteroids in the 30-45 meter range, large enough to destroy a major city should our luck go bad. B612 estimates an asteroid this size strikes the planet about every hundred years.

Potentially hazardous asteroid 4179 Toutatis photographed by the Chang’e 2 spacecraft during a 2012 flyby. The asteroid is 2.8 miles long. Credit: CNSA

Sentinel will create a comprehensive map detailing the paths of asteroids during the next 100 years, giving earthlings decades of notice to alter their course through one of several imaginative but untested methods.

The Foundation believes that asteroid impacts rates have been underestimated and are 3-10 times more common than previously thought. While some would argue that number is overstated, there’s no denying that discovering more potentially hazardous objects is a good thing. Sentinel scientists hope to find some 500,000 large enough to pose a threat.

This is no fly-by-night operation. B612 was co-founded by Ed Lu, a former Shuttle and Soyuz astronaut, and has links with NASA, which will provide communications, navigation and tracking for the mission with its Deep Space Network.

To learn more about the topic, click HERE for a FAQ on hazardous asteroids and HERE to donate money to the mission.

Forbidding Planet: Scientists find remains of monster asteroid impacts on early Earth

Artist’s view of Earth several billion years ago during the Late Heavy Bombardment, when the planet is thought to have been battered by impacts of comets and asteroids. Credit: Chris Butler/SPL

Earth 3.5 billion years ago was a terrifying place. Picture a rocky landscape pounded by meteorites and asteroids with a surface resembling that of the moon. Volcanoes spewed water vapor but also a toxic mix of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and methane. If you could whisk yourself back to this world by time machine, you’d need to be fully protected by a spacesuit and lucky enough to not get picked off by a falling space rock. Oh, and bring a boat too. Hot-water oceans likely covered a fair portion of the planet back then.

This time-lapse illustration of the Nice (pronounced ‘neece’) model of solar system evolution shows how outer planet migrations kick asteroids into the inner solar system

Scientists call the period from about 3.8 billion to 1.8 billion years ago the Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB), a time when the number of asteroids and their fragments pelting the inner planets and their moons spiked. Why then? No one’s absolutely certain, but the leading theory posits that the migration of the giant outer planets to their present positions “stirred the gravitational pot”, slinging boatloads of asteroids into the inner solar system, where they rained down on Earth and its neighbors in hellish monotony for millions of years.

Anyone with a small telescope can see resulting devastation to this day. Just take a long look at the moon’s battered and cratered surface and thank your lucky stars you’re around during a more peaceful time. Finding Earth’s craters is trickier because water and wind erosion, along with the continual recycling of much of our planet’s crust through plate tectonics, has erased much of our violent past.

The Vredefort Dome – these concentric hills, which rebounded after the impact that created Vredefort Crater – are what remains after an asteroid about 3-6 miles wide struck Earth 2 billion years ago. Credit: NASA

About 180 craters are known on Earth today, but we’re aware of only three resulting from the Late Heavy Bombardment. The oldest, estimated at 3 billion years old and 62 miles (100 km) wide, is also the most recently discovered. Found in western Greenland in 2012, all that remains of the impact are rocks rattled by the massive shock wave that penetrated 15 miles (25 km) deep within Earth’s crust.

You can still see the remains of the impacts that formed the 112-mile-wide (180 km) Vredefort Crater in South Africa, which is 2 billion years old, and the youngest LHB member, the 155-mile (250-km) Sudbury crater in Canada dated at 1.85 billion years.

Map of South Africa with the Barberton greenstone belt shown in red. Shock waves from the impact of an asteroid 3.26 billion years ago created telltale formations within the belt. No one knows yet where the impact happened.

Now, a group of scientists have announced they’ve found evidence for an even older impact, one that occurred 3.26 billion years ago and left its signature in a South African region known as the Barberton greenstone belt.

A recent press release describes the huge impactor as between 23 and 36 miles wide (37- 58 km). Colliding with the planet at 12 miles per second, the jolt delivered was bigger than a 10.8 magnitude earthquake and propelled seismic waves hundreds of miles through the Earth, breaking rocks and setting off other large earthquakes. Tsunamis thousands of feet deep swept across the oceans that covered most of the planet at that time.

A graphical representation of the size of the asteroid thought to have killed the dinosaurs (left), and the crater it created, compared to an asteroid thought to have hit the Earth 3.26 billion years ago and the size of the crater it may have generated. A new study reveals the power and scale of the event some 3.26 billion years ago which scientists think created geological features found in a South African region known as the Barberton greenstone belt. Credit: American Geophysical Union

“We knew it was big, but we didn’t know how big,” Donald Lowe, a geologist at Stanford University and a co-author of the study, said of the asteroid.

The collision would have blasted out a crater some 300 miles (500 km) wide, filled the atmosphere with fiery rock vapor and set the surface of the ocean a-boil. We’re talking serious cataclysm. Somehow life found a way through the heat and crater-punching to gift us with the rolling green hills, coral reefs and forests that characterize Earth today.

Table from the book “Near Earth Objects – Finding Them Before They Find Us” by Donald Yeomans showing average asteroid impact results and probabilities by size. Credit: Donald Yeomans

I try to imagine the dark days of the LHB to help me appreciate these calmer times. Yet we know in our gut – and in fact, thanks to probability – that we’ll never truly be out of the woods. Asteroids lurk in the deep that could one day cause a similar scenario. Don’t let it worry you too much – the chance of a 10-mile-wide space rock striking Earth is once every 89 million years. You’ve still got time to take a nap, catch a show and enjoy a few nights out on the town. Probably.

Lunar eclipse will give NASA moon orbiters the shivers

Artist’s view of Earth eclipsing the sun next Tuesday morning April 15 as seen from the Lunar Reconnaissance’s Orbiter’s perspective. For several hours, it and NASA’s LADEE dust explorer will be cut off from sunlight. Back on Earth, we see the moon slide into our planet’s shadow. Credit: NASA

While we’re all bundled up for next Monday’s late night total eclipse of the moon, NASA will be taking special precautions to ensure its two moon probes survive the deep chill they’ll experience when the moon dives into Earth’s shadow.

NASA’s LRO has been orbiting, mapping and studying the moon since 2009. Credit: NASA

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), launched in 2009, has spent the past four-plus years photographing and mapping the moon in great detail from an orbit dipping as low as 31 miles (50 km). One of its goals is to determine future lunar landing sites. The craft also examines the moon’s radiation environment and maps the concentration of hydrogen – the main ingredient of water – across the globe. Hydrogen “hot spots” imply potential locations of water ice beneath the surfade or bound to moon rocks.

LRO will orbit the moon twice in Earth’s shadow. All instruments will be shut down since they would otherwise drain the batteries which can’t recharge without sunlight. Credit: NASA

LRO depends on sunlight to keep its batteries charged and instruments running. During the upcoming lunar eclipse, the moon will be either partially or fully within Earth’s shadow for several hours. With no sunlight reaching the probe’s solar panels, recharging the batteries isn’t possible.

To prevent damage to the either instruments or batteries, NASA plans to shut down all of LRO’s science instruments next Monday night for the duration of the eclipse. As soon as the event is over, the sun will slowly recharge the batteries and mission control will bring everything back online.

While LRO’s no stranger to eclipses,this time the spacecraft will have to pass through the complete shadow twice before the eclipse ends – longer than in any previous event.

“We’re taking precautions to make sure everything is fine,” said Noah Petro, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter deputy project scientist. “We’re turning off the instruments and will monitor the spacecraft every few hours when it’s visible from Earth.”

Understanding lunar eclipses

During other briefer eclipses, scientists have used the opportunity to study how the moon’s surface cools during these events, shedding light on the composition of the lunar crust. During the June 15, 2011 eclipse, temperatures on some areas of the moon dropped 180 degrees F compared to sunny, pre-eclipse conditions.

While LRO is expected to emerge from the shadow with flying colors, the forecast for NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft is sketchy. The probe was never designed to withstand hours in the deep freeze of a shadowed moon.

“The eclipse will really put the spacecraft design through an extreme test, especially the propulsion system,” said Butler Hine, LADEE project manager.

Prior to impact on or before April 21, ground controllers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., are maneuvering the spacecraft to fly approximately 1 to 2 miles (2-3 km) above the lunar surface to gather science measurements at the lowest altitude possible. Credit: NASA

LADEE (pronounced ‘laddie’) has been circling the moon studying dust in its extremely rarefied atmosphere since last fall. Much of the dust sputters off the surface during small meteorite impacts. If it survives the eclipse, LADEE will perform additional week of science before the mission is terminated. Rather than just shutting the probe off, mission control will direct it to crash into the moon near on or around April 21. LRO will locate study the impact site when it makes its next flyover a few months later.

Meanwhile, NASA invites you to  “Take the Plunge Challenge” and guess  what date LADEE will slam into the surface. Winners will be announced after impact and e-mailed a commemorative, personalized certificate from the LADEE program. The submissions deadline is 5 p.m. CDT tomorrow April 11.

For more information on the April 14-15 total eclipse of the moon including viewing times for your time zone, please see my earlier blog.

Boom! Watch a record-breaking meteorite strike the moon

Lunar impact blast September 11, 2013

Wish I’d been over in Europe staring at the waxing crescent moon last September 11. On that evening, a meteoroid weighing an estimated 900 pounds (400 kg) struck Mare Nubium (Sea of Clouds) at 38,000 mph at 8:07 p.m. Greenwich Time.

The flash from the impact occurred in the “dark” portion of the moon not illuminated by sunlight, providing excellent contrast against the landscape.  Anyone looking up at our satellite at that moment would have easily seen it as a star-like point of light of magnitude 2.9, nearly as bright as the stars comprising the Big Dipper.

Still frame from the video taken September 11, 2013 shows the bright flash in Mare Nubium from the small asteroid impact. Credit: J. Madiedo / MIDAS

It was dutifully recorded by two telescopes equipped with CCD cameras in the Moon Impacts Detection and Analysis System (MIDAS) program in southern Spain. Astronomer Jose M. Madiedo, who was operating the telescopes at the time, reports that the event was not only the brightest but the longest-lasting confirmed lunar impact flash; the afterglow of the explosion lasting fully 8 seconds. Estimated at between 2 and 4 feet across (about 1 meter), the little asteroid struck the moon with the equivalent of 15 tons of TNT, hollowing out a 131-foot (40-meter) diameter crater.

NASA video of the March 17, 2013 lunar meteorite impact 

The energy released was three times more powerful than the previous largest impact observed with NASA telescopes last March 17. NASA has recorded more than 300 lunar strikes, almost all much smaller than this one. Over half come from meteor streams like the Perseids or Geminids – the rest originate from random meteorite and comet shards called sporadics.

Once NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Satellite gets into position, it should have no problem photographing this large of an impact scar. We hope the new crater will soon be targeted.

The moon and approximate location of the big impact as seen from southern Spain around 8 p.m. September 11, 2013. Stellarium

The moon has virtually no atmosphere, so meteorites strike its surface at full speed without suffering break up. Similar sized rocks pelt our planet but our atmosphere renders most of them harmless; air pressure and atmospheric heating shatters and slows them down, leaving mostly small pieces traveling at low velocity.

You can read more about the discovery in Madiedo’s complete article published the Monthly Notices of the British Astronomical Society.

Mini Asteroid 2014 AA hits Earth on New Year’s Day

Animation shows the Earth as observed from asteroid 2014 AA shortly before impact. The asteroid approaches from the night side and enters Earth’s shadow cone at approximately 7:45 p.m. CST January 1; a little more than an hour later it entered the atmosphere. Click for more information. Credit: Pasquale Tricarico

I know, I know. That’s a scary headline, but we’re all safe. A very small asteroid estimated at between 3 and 13 feet across (1-4 meters) named 2014 AA headed straight for Earth around 9 p.m. CST on Jan. 1. It likely broke apart in the atmosphere with pieces scattering somewhere along a path stretching from Central America across the Atlantic Ocean to West Africa.

Possible impact zone of the asteroid 2014 AA. It was the first new asteroid discovered in 2014. Map credit: NASA

The reason for the uncertainty is that only a few measurements of of 2014 AA’s position were possible before it literally disappeared from view. Richard Kowalski of the Catalina Sky Survey out of Tucson, Ariz. picked up the object on New Year’s Eve in northern Orion as a tiny twinkle of 19th magnitude. At the time, the asteroid was only 300,000 miles from Earth. When it hit the atmosphere some 22 hours later, it must have created a spectacular fireball.

This sequence of four images taken about every 30 seconds shows 2014 AA’s movement across northern Orion on the evening of Dec. 31. Credit: Catalina Sky Survey / NASA

2014 AA was similar in size to 2008 TC3, the only other asteroid discovered and tracked before impact. That one, estimated at 13 feet across, fragmented in Earth’s atmosphere over the Nubian Desert in Sudan on October 7, 2008.

Later, dozens of fragments with a total weight of 8.7 pounds (3.95 kg) were recovered as the Almahata Sitta meteorite.

Meteor researcher Peter Jenniskens finds a fragment of meteorite dropped by asteroid 2008 TC3 in the desert in Sudan. Credit: Peter Jenniskens

Right now, signals from the global network of infrasound stations are being analyzed to see if they can be correlated with an impact. There are no visual sightings of the asteroid … Perhaps a surveillance satellite snagged it or we’ll hear of a airplane pilot seeing something. Stay tuned!

UPDATE Jan. 3: Three weak infrasound signals have been detected pointing to an impact near 12 degrees north, 40 degrees west latitude about 1,900 miles (3,000 km) east of Caracas, Venezuela in the Atlantic Ocean.