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The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is a NASA spacecraft that is currently orbiting the Moon with the purpose of imaging the surface to confirm landing sites for future manned missions. In addition to creating a 3-D map, the mission is designed to locate potential resources, characterize lunar radiation, and demonstrate new technology. LRO was launched on June 18, 2009 and arrived in lunar orbit on June 23, 2009. Along with the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), both are parts of NASA’s Lunar Precursor Robotic Program and the Vision for Space Exploration program, it marks the first American mission to the Moon in over a decade.
LRO weighs1,900 kg and was initially slated for a one year mission that was extended for the indefinite future. The mission has the primary goals of selenodetic global topography, characterize deep space radiation in lunar orbit, evaluate the lunar polar regions for water ice deposits and lighting, and returning high-resolution mapping (max 0.5 m) for the selection of future landing sites. Images returned by the LRO have shown abandoned Apollo equipment. IN order to accomplish these goals LRO is equipped with the following instrumentation: Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation(CRaTER) to characterize the global lunar radiation environment and its biological impacts; the Diviner Lunar Radiometer Experiment(DLRE) measures lunar surface thermal emission; the Lyman Alpha Mapping Project(LAMP) to explore permanently shadowed craters in search of water ice; the Lunar Exploration Neutron Detector(LEND) to measure, map, and detect possible near-surface water ice deposits; the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter(LOLA) to create a precise global lunar topographic model and geodetic grid; the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) uses a pair of narrow angle cameras and a wide angle camera to certify landing sites and measure polar illumination; and the final piece of instrumentation is the Miniature Radio Frequency radar(Mini-Rf) that has been used to demonstrate new lightweight SAR and communications technologies.
On September 15, 2009, the spacecraft started its primary mission, orbiting the at about 50 km. After completing its one-year exploration phase, LRO was handed over to NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, continuing its 50 km circular orbit, but eventually will be transitioned into a fuel-conserving elliptical orbit. On August 21, 2009, LRO and Chandrayaan-1 attempted a bistatic radar experiment to detect the presence of water ice on the lunar surface. Chandrayaan-1 transmitted radar pulses which, after reflection from the surface, were designed to be picked up by the receivers of LRO; however, the experiment was unsuccessful.
A topographic map of the Moon produced using data gathered by LOLA was released to the public in December 2010. While this map was the most accurate at the time, it is constantly being updated as more data is returned. The spacecraft’s instruments have delivered more than 192 terabytes of data, as much data as all other planetary missions combined. The latest is a global map with a resolution of 100 m per pixel.
Check out these articles about the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter written for Universe Today.
LRO Lets You Stand on the Rim of Aristarchus Crater
LRO to Move in For Closer Look at the Apollo Landing Sites
We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Moon Exploration. Listen here, Episode 114: The Moon, Part 2: Exploration of the Moon.