February 11, 2009

Lunar spacecraft moves closer to launch

The U.S. space agency's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter was en route Wednesday to the Kennedy Space Center for a scheduled April 24 launch.

The spacecraft was built by engineers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., where it recently completed two months of tests in a thermal vacuum chamber, exposed to the extremely high and low temperatures it will experience as it orbits the moon.

The satellite's mission is one of the first steps in NASA's plan to return astronauts to the moon.

LRO will spend at least one year in a low polar orbit on its primary exploration mission, with the possibility of three more years to collect additional detailed scientific information about the moon and its environment, NASA said.

The orbiter will carry seven instruments to provide scientists with detailed maps of the lunar surface and information as to the moon's lighting conditions, mineralogical composition and natural resources.

Officials said the data will be used to select safe landing sites, determine locations for future lunar outposts and help mitigate radiation dangers to astronauts.