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 will be at least a day or two before NASA knows precisely where the spacecraft ended up; the data cutoff indicates it smashed into the far side of the moon, although just barely.
The probe's orbit was lowered on purpose last week to ensure a crash following an extraordinarily successful science mission.
LADEE — short for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer — was launched in September from Virginia. During its $280 million mission, LADEE identified various components of the thin lunar atmosphere — neon, magnesium and titanium, among others — and studied the dusty veil surrounding the moon, created by all the surface particles kicked up by impacting micrometeorites.
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 mission last month and was on overtime, with its fuel running out. 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 spacecraft survived with just a couple pressure sensors acting up.
LADEE isn't the first human-made object to crash onto moon. Dozens of science satellites and Apollo program spacecraft parts have been slammed into the lunar surface on purpose, officials said.