Japan's Kaguya lunar orbiter will end its nearly two-year mission when it collides with the moon at 1830 GMT,Wednesday,June 10,2009 i. e. at 0015 NST,Thursday,June 11,2009.
Kaguya is set to crash into the moon at a lunar latitude of 63° south and longitude of 80° east. Its projected impact site is circled in red in this mosaic of images taken by Europe's SMART-1 spacecraft, which itself smashed into the moon at the end of its mission in 2006 (Image: B Foing/B Grieger/ESA)
Observers in Asia and Australia may be able to spot a bright flash or plume of dust from the crash, and researchers will study its impact site to watch how radiation and micrometeoroids weather the newly exposed lunar soil over time.
Launched in September 2007, Kaguya, formerly known at SELENE, sought to shed light on the formation and evolution of the moon by studying its composition, gravitational field and surface characteristics.
Kaguya deployed two smaller satellites after reaching lunar orbit that allowed it to relay data to Earth while it was on the moon's far side and to better measure anomalies in the moon's gravitational field (see First gravity map of moon's far side unveiled). It also made the world's first HD video of the lunar surface.
Like previous lunar orbiters, including China's Chang'e 1 and Europe's SMART-1 probes, Kaguya will end its voyage in a violent rendezvous with the moon's surface.
Heat and light
It is set to impact in the lower-right section of the moon's near side (see image). Coming in at a very shallow angle – nearly parallel to the ground – the probe has a high chance of skipping across the surface, like a stone across a pond.
Ground-based observers are unlikely to see this skipping. But those in Asia and Australia might be able to spot a plume of dust raised by the impact, if it is backlit by the sun, like snow thrown up by a skier ploughing through powder, says Bernard Foing, project scientist of the European Space Agency's SMART-1 probe, which impacted the moon in 2006.
Viewers may also see a brief flash as some of the kinetic energy of the probe, which will be moving at 6000 kilometres per hour, is converted to heat and light in the collision. "It's a final show for the Japanese people," says Shin-ichi Sobue, a researcher and spokesperson for the Kaguya mission.
Foing says researchers can learn from these crashes. "Impact is the destiny of each orbiter," he told New Scientist. "We try to make use of it as a research opportunity."
Peter Schultz, an expert on lunar impacts at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, agrees. Depending on the specific terrain of the impact site, the crash could leave an elongated scar, exposing fresh soil, or regolith, to the harsh environment of space.
Scientists could watch how the lunar soil weathers over time under solar radiation and bombardment by smaller meteoroids. It would be like "watching a wound heal", according to Schultz.
After the crash, attention will turn to NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) missions, set to launch a week after Kaguya's demise.
LRO will orbit the moon, studying its composition and topography and searching for possible sites for future human bases, while LCROSS will bombard one of the moon's polar craters with two heavy impactors in search of water ice there.