Monday, October 19, 2009

There She Blows

Remember LCROSS? A rocket stage and a space probe crashing into a crater at the Moon's south pole one after the other? The huge plume that should have been visible from Earth, and should have provided evidence for or against the presence of water ice in the achingly cold permanent shadows inside the crater? I know, I know, it was a bust. No big plume, no instant results. It all happened so long ago, all of ten days, and the world has moved on.

Well, turns out there was a plume after all, created by the impact of the rocket stage. There it is, inside the circle, right on the money. An actual spaceship (kind of) impact! According to one of the scientists on the project, “Within the range of model predictions we made, the ejecta brightness appears to be at the low end of our predictions." So it wasn't visible from Earth, or the Hubble telescope, but there it is all the same, captured by the LCROSS probe as it rode in towards its own impact. LCROSS captured spectrographic data too, and so did the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which went on to map the thermal footprint of the impacts. Scientists are analysing it. Some time soon, maybe early in November, they may have some preliminary results.

And right there is one of the problems with trying to get people interested in science, in the age of One-Click shopping. News cycles grow shorter and shorter. We want our instant fix even more instantly. Superinstantly. Hyperinstantly. But actual science is slow and painstaking. It takes time, to look at the evidence. It takes more time to work out what it means. You give people two impacts on the Moon, one right after the other. I mean, really, how much more excitement can you take? But there's no big plume and no instant answer. Pundits begin to predict a moondoggle and complain that the project was overhyped and too hastily staged. And meanwhile, the truth grows stealthily and slowly towards the light. But when it emerges, especially if it's equivocal, will it be reported?

Oh, by the way, 32 new exoplanets found.


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