Small smash for Moon, no leap for moondust

Nasa put a brave face on its moon smash mission, LCross, declaring it a great success because the two spacecraft hit the target crater near the lunar south pole with all instruments working perfectly.

The scientists may have gained data galore to analyse for chemical signs of water on the moon but unfortunately, as far as the public is concerned, LCross was a damp squib.

Nasa created such a buzz about the $79m mission in advance that many thousands of people watching the climax on the internet, myself included, were disappointed.

We looked forward to a flash, a blast and a plume of moondust as the two-tonne Centaur rocket smashed into the permanently shaded rim of the Cabeus crater, where scientists believe ice may lurk close to the surface. We saw nothing, though our hosts on Nasa TV remained resolutely upbeat.

Two hours later staff at Nasa Ames Research Centre in California, the mission headquarters, were enthusing at a press conference.

“The LCross science instruments worked exceedingly well and returned a wealth of data that will greatly improve our understanding of our closest celestial neighbour,” said Anthony Colaprete, project scientist. “The team is excited to dive into the data.”

Mike Wargo, Nasa’s chief lunar scientist, added: “This is Nasa at its very best, with exploration and science working together to provide great information for both.”

There had been speculation that a really successful mission would provide proof of water in the “ejecta” – Nasa-speak for the debris thrown up by the impact – almost immediately.

Now mission scientists say it may be days, weeks or even moths before the team is ready to say how much water has been detected, if any. The presence of water – or rather ice – will make it easier to establish a manned lunar base.

There is a lesson here for Nasa’s still formidable PR machine. Don’t raise expectations excessively. And if you don’t meet public expectations, then have the grace to admit it, even if the mission is technically a triumph.

The world of research

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Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.