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Thursday, January 8, 1998 Published at 19:34 GMT


Moon mission on course

The instruments aboard the unmanned spacecraft Lunar Prospector, launched on Wednesday from Cape Canaveral in Florida, are in good working order, according to the US space agency NASA.

The craft's three masts - where most of the scientific instruments are stored - unfolded as planned more than one hour after liftoff and the various scientific devices were activated without incident, said Marcie Smith of the Ames Research Center in California.

The BBC's David Whitehouse reports on the long-awaited lift-off (Dur: 42")
The rocket was due to take off on Tuesday 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. In 1994, the last lunar orbiter, a tiny spacecraft called Clementine, made worldwide headlines when it discovered possible indirect evidence for water ice on the Moon, in a permanently shadowed miles-deep crater at the south pole.

Prospector is following up the claim staked by Clementine. "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.


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