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Wednesday, January 7, 1998 Published at 09:03 GMT


Moon mission launched

The first NASA spacecraft to be sent to the moon for over 20 years has been launched successfully.

The unmanned spacecraft, called the Lunar Prospector,took off from Cape Canaveral on a year-long mission at 02:30 GMT.

The BBC's David Whitehouse reports on the long-awaited lift-off (Dur: 42")
The rocket was due to take off 24 hours ago but a radar problem delayed the launch.

Scientists hope that the mission will answer questions left over from the series of Apollo moon landings and robotic missions in the 1960s and 1970s.

"I think a lot of people have the idea that perhaps we know all there is to know about the moon, but the reality is we have only just scratched the surface," said Michael Drake, the Director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona. "There is a lot that we still have to learn."

If the unmanned probe had been delayed for a second time, the project would have been put back an entire month.

Ice craters could pave way for a lunar base

One of the probe's main tasks will be to discover if there is water on the Earth's only natural satellite.

For decades, scientists have speculated that water ice could be hidden within the rims of craters at the moon's south pole, permanently shaded from the brilliant sunlight that has baked dry the rest of the lunar surface.

[ image: A simulation of the search for water]
A simulation of the search for water
Lunar Prospector does not carry a camera, but its five scientific instruments will probe the moon's surface for minerals, magnetic fields, gravitational anomalies and frozen water.

The Mission Programme Scientist, Joseph Boyce, said discovering ice would boost any plan to build an Earth outpost on the moon. "Finding ice in the pole regions is very important if someday we want to have a lunar base," he said.


The space agency also announced that the probe will carry an ounce (28 grms) of the ashes of planetary scientist Gene Shoemaker who died in a car accident last year.

Mr Shoemaker was involved in the discovery of the broken comet that crashed into Jupiter in 1994 and he was participated in the unmanned Ranger missions that paved the way for the Apollo moon landings.

Nasa's last moon mission was Apollo 17 in December 1972. The space agency sent a radio astronomy satellite into lunar orbit the following year, but that spacecraft did not study the moon.

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  Internet Links

Nasa's Lunar Prospector Site

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