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Grand finale: NASA spacecraft LADEE crashes on dark side of moon

Grand finale: NASA spacecraft LADEE crashes on dark side of moon
An artist's illustration of NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer shows the spacecraft near the surface of the moon. The lunar orbiter crashed into the surface Thursday -- a planned maneuver as the spacecraft ran out of fuel. (Dana Berry / NASA Ames)

NASA's LADEE mission ended with a bang when the spacecraft crashed into the lunar surface Thursday. The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer smashed into the dark side of the moon between 9:30 and 10:22 p.m., according to NASA officials.

The vending-machine-sized spacecraft ran out of fuel and collided with the moon at a speed of roughly 3,600 miles per hour -- or "about three times the speed of a high-powered rifle bullet," Rick Elphic, LADEE project scientist at NASA Ames Research Center said in a statement. The doomed satellite encountered so much heat -- hundreds of degrees -- that as it broke up during impact, parts of it may have even vaporized.

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The moon has an extremely lumpy gravity field, and so LADEE's handlers have had to maneuver often to keep it from veering out of orbit and then falling to the surface. But before the spacecraft's final dive, the team was able to bring it into a very low orbit, allowing them a rare opportunity to make measurements from less than a mile above the lunar surface.

LADEE, launched in September 2013, was sent to study the moon's exceedingly thin lunar atmosphere. In this sparse "exosphere," the molecules are so far apart that they don't run into each other. The researchers were also looking to solve a decades-old mystery that began when Apollo astronauts saw bright streamers stretching across the lunar heavens. Scientists think this phenomenon was caused by tiny dust grains kicked many miles into the air becoming electrically charged by sunlight, but they hadn't been able to test that theory before.

LADEE was also the first mission to use laser instead of radio waves for two-way communication, allowing it to transmit boatloads of data at a record-breaking speed of 622 megabits per second. Using laser instead of radio allowed them to transmit data six times faster, using half the weight in equipment at 25% less power,  Don Cornwell, the mission manager for the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration, said before the launch.

The mission's launch also became infamous with the inadvertent launch of the "rocket frog" -- an aerial amphibian caught on camera as the rocket carrying LADEE roared to life and apparently blasted the poor animal sky-high.

In the coming months, scientists hope to pinpoint when the spacecraft actually hit the ground. They also want to use NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to take photos of the crash site, to see what shape the debris left in the lunar surface.

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