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NASA crashes space junk into the moon to save lunar heritage sites

This still image and animation shows the final flight path for NASA’s twin Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission spacecraft, which impacted the moon on Dec. 17, 2012, around 2:28 p.m. PST. Their successful prime and extended science missions now completed, the twin GRAIL spacecraft Ebb and Flow are being sent purposefully into the moon because their low orbit and fuel state precludes further scientific operations. The animations were created from data obtained by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC/ASU

NASA deliberately crashed two decommissioned space craft into the moon today in a controlled landing aimed at preserving heritage sites on the lunar surface.

The twin space ships, named Ebb and Flow, were part of NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission to map changes in lunar gravity.

With fuel running so low that jetting out of the moon’s gravitational reach was impossible, the two probes were programmed to crash onto the lunar surface at around 9.30am AEDT today.

A video posted on the NASA website showed a room full of scientists erupting into applause as the crash landing took place.

NASA purposefully picked a crash site out of sight in the moon’s shadow to ensure no disturbance to lunar sites of historical significance, said Dr Alice Gorman from Flinders University, a member of the World Archaeological Congress Space Heritage Task Force.

“After a lot of campaigning by a number of archaeologists and heritage people, NASA has finally recognised that not only the US landing sites on the moon but also other nations like the former USSR are heritage archaeological sites and it would be a good idea to protect them,” she said.

Ebb and Flow’s crash site would likely become a heritage site in future and was named after recently deceased US astronaut Sally Ride, who was the second woman in space, said Dr Gorman.

“Effectively any human material we put on the moon tells us something about human interaction with celestial bodies.”

Landing disused space junk removed it from orbit, where it may pose a hazard to future astronauts or space craft, but there was a “growing reluctance to let lunar orbit become as crowded with crap as Earth’s orbit is,” said Dr Gorman.

“But we are a long way from that,” she said.

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