NASA will try to go back to the moon tonight for the first time in 25 years, but it’s a far cry from the space agency’s Apollo heydays.
Instead of an expensive Saturn V rocket - at 363 feet tall, the biggest rocket ever built - a pencillike 100-foot-tall Athena II rocket sits on a refurbished launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Station.
Athena is about the cheapest launch vehicle available. It doesn’t carry astronauts - just a low-cost robotic probe called Lunar Prospector that won’t even land on the moon.
Scheduled for an 8:31 p.m. launch, Lunar Prospector is designed to orbit 63 miles above the moon’s surface for 18 months before crashing down. The $20 million spacecraft doesn’t even have a computer on board.
But Lunar Prospector’s job is to correct a possibly wrong impression that the $25 billion Apollo program may have left researchers. The moon may not be dry and desolate after all. Maybe there is ice on the moon. Maybe Apollo looked in the wrong place.
“Many people believe this moon is dead. This is not true,” Lunar Prospector chief scientist Alan Binder said.
The Apollo program never strayed from the equatorial area. But a 1994 military probe called Clementine found indications of ice mixed with rocks at the moon’s south pole. It’s scattered about, but scientists now think the moon has as much water as Lake Erie.
The 650-pound probe - drum-shaped with a 4.5-foot diameter - has five instruments attached to the ends of three 8-foot-long masts.
Two spectrometers will search for water. The latest scientific theory is that water was deposited on the moon and the Earth by frequent collisions with minuscule comets - cosmic ice balls.
Lunar Prospector also will chart the primary elements of the moon and try to find out if the moon has a liquid core.
These observations could settle a debate about the origins of the moon. The leading theory is that the moon broke off from the Earth after a collision with a Mars-sized body.
The probe also will search for an element called helium-3, which is thought to be an ideal fuel for clean-operating nuclear fusion. Scientists think the moon has more helium-3 than any other place in the solar system.
But National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials are as excited about Lunar Prospector’s management as they are about the probe’s planned accomplishments. This is one of NASA’s “faster, better, cheaper” missions.
Prospector’s total cost: $63 million, including $20 million for the spacecraft, $23 million for the Athena rocket and $20 million to run the program. It was developed in just under two years.
But to keep costs that low, Lunar Prospector doesn’t have much built-in redundancy. If some key part breaks, the mission could be lost.
The Athena rocket is relatively untested, with more name changes (two) than successful launches (one).
During its first launch try in August 1995, when it was called the Lockheed Launch Vehicle, the rocket suffered two major failures and had to be destroyed. Those problems were corrected, and the rocket was launched successfully last fall as the Lockheed Martin Launch Vehicle, said Jerry Cobb, the rocket’s commercial launch services director. The name Athena was adopted a couple of months ago.