Moonshot Insanity

 Posted by at 16:57  No Responses »
Oct 092009
 

I’m upset.

This happens when people exhibit kneejerk reactions without first trying to understand the details. In this case, I’m referring to LCROSS and the moon impactor study.

I value science and the pursuit of knowledge. As such, I’m going to make a point-by-point rebuttal of one of the more egregious reactionary articles I’ve read concerning this topic. That article may be found here*.

On Friday, NASA is planning to crash into the moon. I’m just wondering: who gave them permission to crash into the moon? Not once, but twice.

The USA is a democratic republic. The people elect representative officials to legislate, execute, and adjudicate. NASA, a government agency, owes its budget to the whims of congress (legislative) and answers to the president (executive). The people working at NASA do so because the representatives we’ve elected have chosen them as the best candidates for the job. This trickles down from the guy in charge to the lowest intern, with all the intermediary managers having delegate responsibility.

So, in short, we gave NASA permission to pursue scientific endeavors as they best see fit by electing our current representatives.

Further, the people at NASA are qualified. Very qualified. They know what they’re talking about and they’ve gone through a lot of schooling. I’m going to quote the excellent Atomic Rocket.

So you know, university Physics is essentially three years of this discussion among like-minded enthusiasts.

Done with supercomputers, access to the textbook collections of five continents and thirty languages.

On four hours sleep a night.

With no sex.

You’re not going to find the loophole these guys missed.

Continuing on with the absurdity…

The rocket and satellite will smash into the moon at 5600 mph (more than seven times the speed of sound). The size of the explosion will be equal to that of 1.5 tons of TNT and will release 772,000 pounds of lunar dirt into a 6.2 mile high spray of debris, NASA’S own version of shock and awe, in a purported experiment to see if any ice or water is released.

I’m just wondering, who signed the paper? Who did the risk assessment? I mean, what if something goes wrong?

Remember that first paragraph? These guys are experts. They did the risk assessment. Trust them; they don’t have their job “just because.” We often refer to less-than-complex matters by saying, “it’s not rocket science.” Well, guess what: this is rocket science, and these are rocket scientists.

It’s a big explosion. Suffice it to say that any amateur astronomer west of the Mississippi with a home telescope will be able to view it from their backyard.

I could say something scientifically lame and ask, “What if it gets thrown off its axis?” or something funny and suggest something (that I actually sort of believe), like, “What if it somehow throws off the astrology?” Or that we’re not risking — as we have the earth with continued experiments of this kind — sending the solar system out of balance.

This is a failure to understand scale.

The moon orbits the Earth once every 27.3 days at a distance of 384,399 km. This works out to an orbital velocity of about 3,700 km/hour. The moon has a mass of 73.5 billion billion metric tons. Thus, the moon has a total kinetic energy (relative to the Earth) of 7.76 x 1028 Joules, or the equivalent of about 18,500 billion megatons of TNT.

And you’re worried about an impactor with 8.09 x 10-18% (that’s 8.09 billion billion billionths of a percent!) the kinetic energy?

Why?

The moon is under constant meteor bombardment, as well. You need only look at its pockmarked surface for confirmation. A common 5-meter ferrous (i.e. iron) asteroid crashing into the moon at the same speed as the impactor is going to have 250 times the kinetic energy.

The irony is that one of the purposes of the experiment is to assess whether there is any water on the moon and is it worthwhile to send another manned mission to the moon. If we’d just send up two guys with a bucket and shovels, we wouldn’t have to bomb the moon at all.

The amount of money and planning that goes into every manned mission is enormous compared to unmanned missions. Getting people into space, along with all the required support equipment (atmosphere, water, food, etc.) is hard and requires a great deal of fuel. Keeping people alive in space is harder. Sending up unmanned probes is comparably easy.

I’m not a big fan of explosions, anyway. In Iraq or Afghanistan or the South Pole of the Moon. But who does have a territorial prerogative there?

The explosions in Iraq and Afghanistan are chemical explosions meant to kill people. The “explosion” on the moon is an impact-derived plume of dust meant to learn something and potentially help people. Big difference.

Who has jurisdiction?

By international decree, no one has jurisdiction over space territory. Yet, anyway.

Who has the right to say that it’s okay to blow up a crater on the moon? Or Jupiter? Or Saturn, for that matter?

See above about experts.

If we think there is water there, how do we know we’re not affecting some life form, as well?

Do you worry about wiping down your counter tops with a disinfecting wipe? You are, after all, deliberately killing off microbial lifeforms when you do so. Any form of life on the moon is going to be extremely simplistic and if it exists in one location, will likely exist in many.

It sort of reminds me of two kids in a backyard with a firecracker that they don’t really know how to set off.

This comparison implies that NASA scientists don’t know what they’re doing. Frankly, it’s just insulting.

It’s causing great excitement in the astronomy sector. NASA is running a live broadcast on its website (wonder if they’re selling ads). A NASA spokesman announced, “It’s going to be pretty cool.” The Fiske Planetarium in Boulder is serving free coffee and bagels. “People like explosions,” the Planetarium director is quoted as saying, “and this is going to excite them.”

There’s a good reason for this: it’s an interesting, visible experiment that may lead to revolutionary results.

Well, I for one, don’t like explosions. Call me a pacifist, call me cautious, call me an environmentalist, or call me something worse, I don’t really care.

This is a non-destructive explosion in the pursuit of better understanding of the world. Better understanding is at the heart of pacifism and environmentalism.

The only thing you can be called is reactionary and ignorant.

ADDENDUM: Here’s a YouTube clip showing the impact.


* This article may or may not be a humor post, but if it is, it accurately illustrates widespread sentiment I’ve seen expressed on numerous websites.