Hang out with UFO researchers long enough and you’ll probably hear the one about the time the U.S. space agency bombed – or nuked -the moon. Some ufologists and other scientific types think abusing the Moon with excessive force is nothing short of insane, not to mention poor use of taxpayer money.
Is there any truth behind this story? What, if anything, has the United States government authorized the military and space experts to do to our only natural satellite, Mother Moon – and why? Gather ’round and I’ll tell you the official story:
On January 6, 1998, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched Lunar Prospector as one of its Discovery Program missions. Built to investigate the low polar orbit of the Moon, onboard equipment mapped the surface composition, located lunar resources, measured magnetic and gravity fields, and studied outgassing events.
Lunar Prospector carried only scientific instruments. Its data complemented the image data from the Clementine mission, which carried mostly cameras. The stated purpose of these projects was to educate NASA researchers about the origin, evolution, and current state of the Moon.
In 1999, Lunar Prospector detected concentrated hydrogen signatures – large amounts of hydrogen – in permanently-shadowed craters at the lunar poles. The NASA scientists got very excited because one atom of hydrogen combined with two atoms of oxygen makes a water molecule, the basis of life as we know it.
The lunar explorers wondered if the Moon’s polar hydrogen might occur in the form of water molecules – H2O?
In April 2006, NASA selected the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) to help find the answer. The space agency’s Ames Research Center in California had designed an ingenious satellite composed of two parts: a projectile that slammed into a crater, kicking up a giant debris plume and a spacecraft that flew through the space-borne particles of moon rock and dust to determine its composition.
The Moon has very little tilt on its north-south axis so the Sun never shines on the bottom of some polar craters. Water ice dating back billions of years there might have escaped instant evaporation from direct exposure to the high temperatures of sunlight.
The LCROSS projectile was the section of the rocket that had lifted LCROSS off the Earth and into space – basically, an empty fuel tank that measured just over 40 feet long. Rather than toss it out with the other space trash, NASA released the used-up rocket hurtling it almost straight down into Cabeus crater, near the Moon’s south pole.
The date was October 9, 2009. The LCROSS spacecraft had four minutes to collect information before flying through the debris field before it, too, crashed down into a shadowy lunar crater, adding to the debris plume:
“As the debris cloud rose above the crater’s rim and was exposed to sunlight, any water ice and other molecules of interest were vaporized and broken down into their basic components. The cameras and other instruments onboard LCROSS could then see what this lunar crater soil was made of.”
NASA timed the experiment with its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which had just flown past the impact site when it occurred. LRO continued studying the scene unfolding below after the LCROSS system committed hari-kari in the name of science.
What did NASA find on the Moon after dropping the equivalent of a 2-ton kinetic missile on it? Hydrogen gas, ammonia and methane (all potential fuel components for space missions), large amounts of light metals (such as sodium, mercury, and silver), and – lo and behold – crystals of water ice.
This wasn’t the first time scientists considered bombing the moon. In 2000, Leonard Reiffel, a former executive at NASA, disclosed that, in 1958, he led a project named A Study of Lunar Research Flights. Project A119 included a youthful Carl Sagan who worked on a team predicting the effects of a nuclear explosion in a vacuum and low gravity condition, as well as the scientific value of the project.
Project A119 had been concocted by the United States Air Force (USAF). It was a top-secret plan to detonate a nuclear device on the Moon.
“Why?” you may well ask. So glad you did.
The military top brass wanted answers – answers about astronomy and astrogeology, the study of space-based minerals. But they also wanted to boost American Cold War morale. We were losing to our arch-enemy, the Ruskies. The Soviet Union stunned the world on October 4, 1957, with the successful launch of Sputnik I, the world’s first artificial satellite capable of maintaining low earth orbit.
The nuke-happy U.S. Air Force generals figured that if the American people could see a faint explosion on the face of the moon, they would be reassured by this display of power. A nuclear device would have to be detonated on the surface rather than in a lunar crater to be visible to the naked eye on Earth.
Fearing public backlash from militarizing space, the USAF abandoned Project A119. The nation focused on a much more popular lunar landing.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Apollo rockets carried mortars and explosives to the Moon. Apollo 16 and 17 crew members detonated them in seismic experiments to figure out what’s inside the moon.
Is it hollow as many ufologists claim? That’s a story for another day.