NASA Moon bombing: Did NASA really drop a bomb on the moon?

Although it's more dramatic to say NASA bombed the moon today, they really didn't. We explain why...

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    NASA's Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) impact view is seen in this image released on October 9, 2009. Two U.S. spacecraft were crashed into a lunar crater Friday but scientists said it was too early to say whether the mission to search for supplies of water on the Moon had been a success.
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Bomb: an explosive device used to detonate under specific conditions. -- Webster's Dictionary

To those people who may may have been misled by the overuse of the word "bomb" -- at The Monitor and elsewhere -- to describe NASA's LCROSS mission:

Nothing exploded, although two spacecraft -- one about the size of a bus, the other a subcompact car -- did crash on the surface of the moon. For background on the whys and wherefores, you can read more about moon exploration and the reasons for the LCROSS mission here, here, and here, for instance.

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How would the moon have felt about it? It's hard to ask an inanimate, non-sentient object. But using Sir Isaac Newton's action-reaction law -- the one that describes why a rocket moves one direction when its exhaust flows out the back in the opposite direction -- researchers estimate that the two collisions combined would have the same effect on the moon that dropping an eyelash in the aisle would have on the speed and direction of a Boeing 747.

In effect, these two human-made objects were artificial meteors. The moon takes hits from natural meteors several times a month. So from the moon's perspective, it will have gotten tickled a few more times in October than it usually does. The Hunter's Moon merely became the hunted, briefly.

Was the mission a test bed for space weapons? Don't laugh, some have suggested this. But this would have yielded nothing the Pentagon doesn't already know about orbits or depositing objects with precision from space onto the ground. Precision orbits? They already know how to do that with reconnaissance satellites. Dropping things from space? They already can deliver a small cluster of nuclear warheads -- each against its own target -- with a precision greater than the one LCROSS displayed as it hurtled into the moon.

What the misuse of the word "bomb" reminds us scribes and those charged with keeping our more outlandish prose in check is that words matter. Space geeks who tend to follow these missions clearly realize "bomb" is not a literal description for what's happening. They may roll their eyeballs at the "hype." But they generally don't take it seriously.

Those who don't follow space-science matters much, however, or who are working their way up through school and are looking for information for that next report or project, might take the image more literally.

In the end, we're responsible for the words we choose. It's one thing to accurately describe something and have people misunderstand. Sometimes that can be cured by selecting a different approach to the description. Sometimes the misunderstanding is willful. But it's something else again to intentionally use words clearly open to misinterpretation, and let the chips fall where they may. (Nice cliche, Pete!)

Be at ease. The moon is very little worse for the wear, no matter how many times you see "bomb" associated with this NASA mission. Here's hoping folks in my business drop the bomb. Get it?

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