June 20, 2009

Moon orbiter faces many risks

Despite its successful launch, NASA's unmanned moon mission still faces heat damage, instrument glitches and calculation mistakes, a U.S. scientist said.

There's always that little bit of tension until you get the first data back on the ground, said Mark Robinson, an Arizona State University scientist overseeing the orbiter's three cameras.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter launched Thursday for a four-day journey to the moon. If all goes as planned, the spacecraft is to enter the moon's orbit Tuesday and begin spiraling down until it is about 30 miles above the surface and in position to take photos, map topography, record temperatures and measure radiation levels.

It's yet to be determined if operating systems were damaged by launch vibrations or if the insulation protecting instruments from heat and cold will prove adequate, the Republic reported.

One of the orbiter's seven science instruments could still malfunction even if everything else works correctly, forcing scientists to troubleshoot the problem from millions of miles away.

There's a lot of risk, Robinson said.