Those crazy Americans might have a monopoly on the history of putting human feet on the moon’s surface, but South Africa can crash a spaceship into a large orbiting body as well as anyone. The South African National Space Agency (SANSA) just confirmed that it was a team based at Hartebeesthoek which was behind the wheel when NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) probe intentionally smashed into the lunar surface last Thursday.
The LADEE probe was launched in September 2013, and its mission was to orbit the moon gathering information about the makeup of the planetoid’s surface and atmosphere. Scientists also hope to use LADEE data to answer the question of what caused the sunrise effect seen by Apollo astronauts, which they currently believe to be solar charged atmosphere particles.
LADEE achieved moon orbit in November, and its original 100 day mission was extended in March with an extra series of low orbit passes which took the probe to within a mile of the surface. Once it descended to this height, it lacked enough fuel to return to a stable orbit and so the end of the mission was signalled by smashing the probe into the far side of the moon at 3 600 miles per hour (5 793kmph). It’s hoped that the impact crater will be visible to other lunar satellites. The final commands to LADEE were sent from the South African station.
NASA ran an online competition to guess the exact time of the crash.
As well as being an important scientific research probe designed to help us understand more about the moon and how it came to be created, LADEE was also the first NASA vehicle to be equipped with a communications system based on lasers rather than radiowaves.
Speaking about South Africa’s role in the mission, SANSA MD Raoul Hodges said “”We would like to consider ourselves as the leading ground station on the continent. Being part of such cutting-edge research and services proves that no mission is too big or too small for our capabilities.”
The final order to finish LADEE off – issued from the US – is in the video below.
[Image -NASA Ames/Dana Berry]