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NASA crashes spacecraft into moon at 3,600 mph

NASA leaves some more debris on the lunar surface by intentionally crashing a spacecraft...for science.

LADEE above the moon
An artist's concept of LADEE in orbit above the moon. NASA

Some spacecraft have all the luck. The Mars Curiosity rover gets to truck around on a foreign planet on an ongoing mission. Kepler (though crippled) keeps flying about in space, being responsible for cool discoveries. The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, better known as LADEE, however, reached its expiration date as of Thursday.

LADEE's $280 million mission didn't last long. It took off from the warm embrace of Earth in early September of last year. It went in search of answers to a strange glow on the moon's horizon, as reported by astronauts from the Apollo 17 mission.

The intentionally doomed spacecraft did its job by gathering detailed data on the lunar atmosphere's composition. Scientists will be poring over the information to try to determine if the mystery glow was caused in part by lunar dust.

The craft was never intended to be out there long-term. When it hit the lunar surface, it was estimated to be traveling at 3,600 mph.

"There's nothing gentle about impact at these speeds -- it's just a question of whether LADEE made a localized craterlet on a hillside or scattered debris across a flat area. It will be interesting to see what kind of feature LADEE has created," said LADEE project scientist Rick Elphic.

NASA will attempt to capture an image of the impact site later using the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, a spacecraft with a much longer life span.

Though LADEE didn't burn long, it burned brightly. It will be remembered for achievements like flying more than 100 orbits at very low altitudes and being the first to use a laser system for two-way communication, rather than traditional radio waves. Farewell, LADEE, and good job.