TORONTO – A satellite is about to fall out of orbit around the moon and NASA is turning the event into a guessing game for the public — literally.
The space agency knows that LADEE, a satellite that has been orbiting the moon since October, will impact the surface of the moon on or before April 21, but they can’t say exactly when.
The “Take the Plunge” Challenge invites people to pick a date between April 4 and April 11 that they think will be the day the satellite hits the moon.
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On April 11, ground controllers at NASA will command LADEE to perform its final orbital maintenance manoeuvre. Coincidentally, the manoeuvre will happen just before a total lunar eclipse on April 15. The eclipse will expose the spacecraft to conditions just on the edge of what it was designed to endure.
The manoeuvre will ensure that LADEE impacts the far side of the moon in order to avoid any of the moon landing sites.
The reason that NASA engineers are unsure of the date is due to the moon’s gravity field.
“The moon’s gravity field is so lumpy, and the terrain is so highly variable with crater ridges and valleys that frequent maneuvers are required or the LADEE spacecraft will impact the moon’s surface,” said Butler Hine, LADEE project manager. “Even if we perform all maneuvers perfectly, there’s still a chance LADEE could impact the moon sometime before April 21, which is when we expect LADEE’s orbit to naturally decay after using all the fuel onboard.”
LADEE has been orbiting the moon since Oct. 6, collecting data in order to better understand the moon’s atmosphere and dust environment.