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Moon-orbiting craft ends successful mission by crashing – as planned

In this illustration made available by NASA, dust scatters light during the lunar sunset as LADEE orbits the moon. The spacecraft crashed into the moon Friday. (Associated Press)
In this illustration made available by NASA, dust scatters light during the lunar sunset as LADEE orbits the moon. The spacecraft crashed into the moon Friday. (Associated Press)
Marcia Dunn Associated Press

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA’s robotic moon explorer is no more.

The orbiting spacecraft crashed into the back side of the moon Friday as planned, flight controllers said, avoiding artifacts moonwalkers left behind.

LADEE’s annihilation occurred three days after it survived a full lunar eclipse, which it was never designed to do.

Researchers believe LADEE likely vaporized when it hit because of its extreme orbiting speed of 3,600 mph, possibly smacking into a mountain or side of a crater. No debris would have been left behind.

“It’s bound to make a dent,” project scientist Rick Elphic predicted Thursday.

By Thursday evening, the spacecraft had been skimming the lunar surface at an incredibly low altitude of 300 feet. Its orbit had been lowered on purpose last week to ensure a crash by Monday following an extraordinarily successful science mission.

LADEE – short for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer – was launched in September from Virginia. From the outset, NASA planned to crash the spacecraft into the back side of the moon, far from the Apollo artifacts from the moonwalking days of 1969 to 1972.

The last thing the LADEE team wanted was “to plow into any of the historic sites,” project manager Butler Hine said.

LADEE completed its primary 100-day science mission last month and was on overtime. The extension had LADEE flying during Tuesday morning’s lunar eclipse; its instruments were not designed to endure such prolonged darkness and cold.

But the small spacecraft – about the size of a vending machine – survived with just a couple of pressure sensors acting up.

The mood in the control center at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., was upbeat late Thursday afternoon, according to Hine.

“Having flown through the eclipse and survived, the team is actually feeling very good,” Hine said.

But the uncertainty of the timing of LADEE’s demise had the flight controllers “on edge,” he said.

As it turns out, LADEE succumbed within several hours of Hine’s comments. NASA announced its end early Friday morning.

During its $280 million mission, LADEE identified various components of the thin lunar atmosphere – neon, magnesium and titanium, among others – and studied the dusty veil surrounding the moon, created by all the surface particles kicked up by impacting micrometeorites.

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