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April 18, 2014

NASA's moon-orbiting robot crashes down as planned

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA's robotic moon explorer, LADEE, is no more.

Flight controllers confirmed that the orbiting spacecraft crashed into the back side of the moon Friday as planned, avoiding the precious historic artifacts left behind by moonwalkers.

LADEE's annihilation occurred just three days after it survived a full lunar eclipse, something it was never designed to do.

Researchers believe LADEE likely vaporized when it hit because of its extreme orbiting speed of 3,600 mph, possibly smacking into a mountain or side of a crater. No debris would have been left behind.

"It's bound to make a dent," project scientist Rick Elphic predicted Thursday.

By Thursday evening, the spacecraft had been skimming the lunar surface at an incredibly low altitude of 300 feet. Its orbit had been lowered on purpose last week to ensure a crash by Monday following an extraordinarily successful science mission.

LADEE — short for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer — was launched in September from Virginia. From the outset, NASA planned to crash the spacecraft into the back side of the moon, far from the Apollo artifacts from the moonwalking days of 1969 to 1972.

Scattered over the near side of the moon: the landing portions of six lunar modules, flags, plaques, rovers and more, not to mention those memorable first footprints by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Apollo 12 had been projected to be closest — by several hundred miles.

The last thing the LADEE team wanted was "to plow into any of the historic sites," said project manager Butler Hine.

LADEE completed its primary 100-day science mission last month and was on overtime. The extension had LADEE flying during Tuesday morning's lunar eclipse; its instruments were not designed to endure such prolonged darkness and cold.

But the small spacecraft survived — it's about the size of a vending machine — with just a couple pressure sensors acting up.

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