June 16, 2009

NASA Probes Ready to Explore the Moon

NASA is set to begin a landmark lunar exploration mission this week with the launch of two probes that will scout for water sources and landing sites on the Moon's surface. 

The space agency has its eye on sending astronauts back to the Moon by 2020 -- the first time since 1972.

NASA is set to launch the dual LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter) and LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) missions this Thursday atop an Atlas V rocket. The launch is a day behind schedule to accommodate the delayed launch of the space shuttle Endeavour.

The mission represents the initial step towards the ultimate goal of launching space exploration further into the solar system, to Mars and even beyond.

"The robotic mission will give us information we need to make informed decisions about any future human presence on the moon," NASA program manager Todd May told the AFP news agency on Monday.

The LCROSS in particular appears destined to become one of NASA's most successful bids at space discovery for years.

The probes will be tasked with seeking out ice on the moon, a crucial component for any planning of manned lunar colonies. 

The kamikaze probe will toss itself into one of the permanently shadowed craters on the dark side of the moon that never receives sunshine. The probe will be traveling at approximately 5,580 mph when it makes contact with the surface. 

The impact will consist of two phases. During the initial phase, the craft's second stage rocket, having already detached from the probe about 10 hours earlier, will crash into the moon. Minutes later, the second phase will occur, in which the probe containing scientific instruments will crash into the same location, burrowing down as deeply as possible.

The combined impacts will excavate some 500 metric tons of lunar material, NASA said.

The $79 million initiative will conclude with a search of the crater for signs of any potential long-frozen water sources, and an examination of the Moon's mineral makeup.

The LRO will add to NASA's knowledge base by remaining in orbit for one year, roughly 31 miles above the lunar surface, which is the closest that any spacecraft has continuously orbited the moon.

The LRO's $500 million mission will provide maps of unparalleled accuracy, which will play a critical role in helping NASA scope out potential lunar landing sites.

May said that both missions will assist the agency in modeling the subtleties of lunar lighting and temperature range, and will provide additional information about the cosmic radiation the moon is exposed to due to its lack of atmosphere.

The probes' four-day, 238,000 mile return to the moon will take place nearly forty years after humans first landed on the Moon, and is expected to shed light on the largest Earth satellite in unprecedented ways.

Both the LRO and LCROSS missions promise to illuminate "the process that formed the earth, the moon and the solar system," said May.

NASA hopes the probes will also answer a variety of fundamental questions about cosmic history.

"Earth is subject to erosion processes from air and water," May said.

"The moon itself doesn't have this process... LRO will send back pictures daily on things we have barely seen before."

The space shuttle Endeavour is on track for a 5:40 am EST launch on Wednesday from Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida.  The mission will transport six Americans and one Canadian to the International Space Station (ISS), according to NASA officials.

Endeavour's launch was delayed last Saturday due to a hydrogen leak in one of its external fuel tanks.


Image Caption: Technicians completed connections between the LRO and LCROSS spacecraft and the Atlas V rocket at Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis


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