Out of fuel and flying fast, NASA’s LADEE spacecraft crashed into the moon early Friday, three days shy of its expected mission end.
“LADEE lacked fuel to maintain a long-term lunar orbit or continue science operations and was intentionally sent into the lunar surface,” NASA said in a press release Friday.
Impact occurred between 12:30 a.m. and 1:22 a.m. EDT Friday somewhere on the moon’s far side.
LADEE — an acronym for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer — has been studying dust and gas in the region of space surrounding the moon since November.
With its mission about to end, LADEE’s orbit was lowered to less than 2 miles above the lunar surface earlier this month in an attempt to collect data from an unprecedentedly low altitude.
“Every time we dropped down to a lower altitude in the past, we’ve discovered something new,” lead scientist Rick Elphic, with NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., said at the time.
“We wouldn’t have authorized these low-altitude, high-risk attempts if all the requirements had not already been met,” added LADEE program executive Joan Salute, with NASA Headquarters in Washington DC.
Scientists had hoped to keep LADEE flying until April 21, but that was not to be.
“The spacecraft’s orbit naturally decayed following the mission’s final low-altitude science phase,” NASA said.
Soaring around the moon at 3,600 miles per hour (1,600 meters per second), LADEE not only broke apart on impact, but parts of it likely vaporized.
“Any material that remained is likely buried in shallow craters,” NASA said.
“There’s nothing gentle about impact at these speeds — it’s just a question of whether LADEE made a localized craterlet on a hillside or scattered debris across a flat area. It will be interesting to see what kind of feature LADEE has created,” Elphic said in a statement.
NASA plans to use a sister spacecraft, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, to look for LADEE’s crash site.