The Citadel kicks sand on the moon
On Friday an unmanned spacecraft the size of a school bus will purposely crash land on the South Pole of the moon. What gets kicked up in the dust – and into the sunlight - will hopefully tell scientists if there is water on the moon. If there is water in large enough quantities, it is possible that human life could be sustained on the moon for future astronaut missions.
Propelling a multi-million dollar spacecraft -- the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) -- at the moon’s surface knowing it will not survive the impact is the brainchild of a team of scientists that included Luke Sollitt, an assistant professor of physics at The Citadel.
Until this fall, Sollitt was working for Northrop Grumman, an aerospace and defense technology manufacturer. In 2005 he and the other members of his team developed the idea of exploring the shadowed regions of the moon in the search of water.
“We only want to know if there is water there,” Sollitt told a campus audience of students, staff and faculty members recently. “It will be up to future missions to decide what to do with it if it is there.”
Proceeding at an unprecedented speed from idea to launch, the mission lifted off in June, just three and a half years after the team came up with the idea. Most space missions take years to be developed and launched.
LCROSS – Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite – is scheduled to hit the moon at approximately 7:30 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 9, 2009. The impact is expected to be visible through backyard telescopes in many parts of the country, except the East Coast where sunrise will have already occurred.
At 7 a.m. Friday students, staff and faculty will gather in Grimsley Hall Room 117 to watch the impact and the data stream from the LCROSS shepherding spacecraft and a live feed from the MMT Observatory in Arizona. The watch party is being called “Reveille on the Moon.” Media are welcome.
- Steve Odendahl, Citadel Class of 1985, designated as the next mission director for NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission to the moon.
- Andy Christensen, senior scientist at The Aerospace Corporation, and adjunct professor at Dixie State College of Utah.
- Keith Kroening, systems engineer for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems.
The panel discussion is free and open to the public.
Sollitt’s personal story is as interesting as his involvement in the LCROSS mission. He joined The Citadel’s physics faculty this fall. He wanted to spend more time on research ideas and decided teaching would give him that opportunity. He left sunny Los Angeles and arrived in the Lowcountry this past summer.
“I am coming from industry with a singular perspective, so The Citadel took a chance on me,” he said. “I enjoy being in the classroom. I go home feeling like I’ve done good things.”
Sollitt said he is impressed by the discipline and self motivation The Citadel instills in students in support of its mission of educating principled leaders. That discipline and motivation was lacking when Sollitt first went to college. But it is also what brought him back to his first love of physics.
In college he flunked physics and majored in German, graduating from the University of Maryland. After graduation he worked for the IRS as a tax collector, first in the United States, then in Canada finding people who had not paid their taxes. He grew tired of the job after five years and headed back to the University of Maryland where, with a bit more life experience and discipline now under his belt, he finally got his B.S. in physics. Afterward, he enrolled in graduate school at California Institute of Technology and earned his doctorate in physics.
Solllitt said it was in graduate school that he first thought about looking for water at the South Pole of the moon. He took the idea with him to Northrop Grumman where the idea grew. Not long after he arrived NASA began talking about sending an unmanned probe to the moon in search of moon ice, frozen water. The idea took hold.
The crater Cabeus is mountainous but is close to the moon’s South Pole. Portions of the crater floor are in permanent shadow and it has the higher concentration of measured hydrogen, which is thought to be bound up in water.
Sollitt said during a similar mission in 1998 scientists were unable to see anything following impact with the moon. Then a smaller spacecraft had only grazed the moon’s surface. The two components that make up LCROSS are much larger and the impact angle will be much higher. This time the impact is expected to result in a 1,000 metric ton plume of debris that will rise 20 to 25 miles above the surface of the moon.
The permanently shadowed parts of the moon have been gathering water for billions of years, Sollitt said. The question for this mission is how much water exists and can it be converted to support future moon missions and, as science fiction suggests, life on the moon.
“It’s amazing to think that I have made a real contribution to our nation’s space program,” Sollitt said. “What started, for me, as an idea in grad school is about to hit the moon, and that’s exhilarating.”
Read about it in the Charleston Post and Courier
LInks on interest