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ASU moon camera survives close encounter of rocky kind

An airplane flies against the backdrop of the rising moon after taking off from Miami International airport, Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017, above Surfside, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

PHOENIX — A meteoroid going about 12 miles per second struck an Arizona State University-operated camera as it orbited the moon, yet the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) survived.

“Which is really fast,” said Mark Robinson, a professor at ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and principle investigator for the ASU-operated cameras aboard NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

“That’s 10 times faster than the muzzle velocity of a bullet coming out of a gun,” he said. “So it was pretty amazing that we actually survived being hit.”

The meteoroid was the size of the head of a pin, he said, and even though it’s very small it has a lot of energy.

“When it hit the camera we’re lucky that it didn’t do any permanent damage,” he said. “It just shook the camera and part of the image blurred.”

That image was noticed about six months after impact by a program that looks for anomalies and geological features among the almost one million images the camera has taken already

“Then we went and did a computer model study of exactly how much energy would it take and where it did it hit,” he said. “And when we put the numbers in that we got out of the image data, lo and behold, they match exactly as if when we simulated a small meteoroid [impact].”

But the fact the camera is only taking pictures about five percent of the time, he said. And about 80 percent of the camera is protected by the spacecraft.

“So the odds of it getting hit are pretty small,” he said. “And the odds of us actually being hit while we’re taking a picture was even smaller.”

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