CAPE CANAVERAL — NASA took the first concrete step Thursday toward returning human beings to the moon, successfully launching the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter on a mission to find the best place to build Earth's first off-world colony.
The 19-story-high, two-stage rocket and spacecraft launched at 5:32 p.m. As the huge first-stage Atlas V rocket roared to life, NASA spokesman George Diller called it "America's first step in a lasting return to the moon."
The $500 million orbiter will spend the next year cruising just 31 miles above the lunar surface, employing a suite of seven instruments to identify landing hazards such as rocks and craters.
It will pay particular attention to the largely unknown lunar poles, where previous missions have picked up hints that water ice may exist in some permanently shadowed craters.
Finding water is so important that a second spacecraft is riding along with the orbiter that has no other job but to punch a hole in one of the polar craters, in hopes of sending a plume of ice and debris above the lunar surface.
Although the relatively inexpensive $79 million Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite is a minor part of the mission, the idea has captured the attention of the public.
Thousands of sky watchers are expected to turn their telescopes to the moon on the morning of Oct. 9, when the water-seeking satellite steers the fuel-depleted second stage Centaur rocket into a crater at 5,600 mph.
About two dozen observatories on Earth will be watching the collision, as well as the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit. On the ground, the impact should be observable from Mississippi in the east to Hawaii in the west.