NASA launches Twin Lunar Probes to Unravel Moons Core

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NASA renewed its focus on ground breaking science today with the thunderous blastoff of a pair of lunar bound spacecraft that will map the moons interior with unparalled precision and which will fundamentally alter our understanding of how the moon and other rocky bodies in our solar system – including Earth – formed and evolved over 4.5 Billion years.

Today’s (Sept. 10) launch of the twin lunar Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) spacecraft atop the mightiest Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 9:08 a.m. EDT was a nail biter to the end, coming after a two day weather delay due to excessively high upper level winds that scrubbed the first launch attempt on Sept. 8, and nearly forced a repeat cancellation this morning.

Liftoff of the nearly identical GRAIL A and B lunar gravity mappers from Space Launch Complex 17B took place on the second of two possible launch attempts after the first attempt was again waived off because the winds again violated the launch constraints.

GRAIL A and B gravity mappers rocket to the moon atop a Delta II Heavy booster on Sept. 10 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. View to Space Launch Complex 17 gantry from Press Site 1.

Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)


After the final “GO” was given, the Delta II Heavy booster suddenly roared to life and put on a spectacular show spewing smoke, flames and ash as it pushed off the pad and shot skywards atop a rapidly growing plume of exhaust and rumbling thunder into a nearly cloudless sky.

The solar powered dynamic duo were propelled to space by the last ever Delta II rocket slated to depart Earth from Cape Canaveral, Florida. After more than 50 years of highly reliable service starting in 1960, the venerable Delta II family will be retired after one final launch in October from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

GRAIL and Delta II rocket soar to space.
View to Space Launch Complex 17 Pad A & Pad B (right) from Press Site 1. Credit: Ken Kremer

On this special occasion the media were allowed to a witness the launch from Press Site 1 – a location just 1.5 miles away from the pad with a gorgeous and unobstructed view to the base of the pad which magnified the tremendous roar of the rocket engines.

“Since the earliest humans looked skyward, they have been fascinated by the moon,” said GRAIL principal investigator Maria Zuber from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “GRAIL will take lunar exploration to a new level, providing an unprecedented characterization of the moon’s interior that will advance understanding of how the moon formed and evolved.”

Delta II arcs over atop long exhaust plume casting shadow for long lunar journey. Credit: Ken Kremer

The spacecraft separation and deployment of the solar arrays worked exactly as planned, the mission team reported at a post launch briefing for reporters. Both probes are power positive and healthy.

GRAIL A and B are now speeding towards the moon on a low energy path that will take about 3.5 months compared to just three days for the Apollo astronauts. The slower and longer path covering more than 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) enables the spacecraft to use a smaller engine and carry less fuel for the braking maneuver required to place the probes into a polar elliptical orbit when they arrive at the moon about 25 hours apart on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day 2012.

“Our GRAIL twins have Earth in their rearview mirrors and the moon in their sights,” said David Lehman, GRAIL project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “The mission team is ready to test, analyze and fine-tune our spacecraft over the next three-and-a-half months on our journey to lunar orbit.”

During the 82 day science phase, the primary objective of is to study the moons interior from crust to core and map its gravity field by 100 to 1000 times better than ever before. GRAIL A and GRAIL B will fly in tandem formation in near circular polar orbit at an altitude of some 50 km above the lunar surface as the moon rotates beneath three times.

GRAIL lunar twins depart Earth for the Moon
All 3 Air-lit solids have ignited after all 6 ground lit solids have been jettisoned.Credit: Ken Kremer

The mission will provide unprecedented insight into the structure and composition of moon from crust to core, unlock the mysteries of the lunar interior and advance our understanding of the thermal evolution of the moon that can be applied to the other terrestrial planets in our solar system, including Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars.

Read Ken’s continuing features about GRAIL
GRAIL Unveiled for Lunar Science Trek — Launch Reset to Sept. 10
Last Delta II Rocket to Launch Extraordinary Journey to the Center of the Moon on Sept. 8
NASAs Lunar Mapping Duo Encapsulated and Ready for Sept. 8 Liftoff
GRAIL Lunar Twins Mated to Delta Rocket at Launch Pad
GRAIL Twins ready for NASA Science Expedition to the Moon: Photo Gallery

NASA Releases Closer Looks at Apollo Landing Sites from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

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New images of the Apollo 12, 14 and 17 landing sites are the highest resolution pictures ever of human forays onto another world, as seen from a bird’s eye view — or in this case, a satellite’s eye view. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter dipped to a lower altitude, just 21 kilometers (13 miles) over the lunar surface.

“We like to look at the Apollo landing site images because it’s fun,” said LRO principal investigator Mark Robinson at a media briefing today. “But LROC (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera) is looking at the whole Moon, and we have now taken 1,500 of these very high resolution images from all around the Moon which will help scientists and engineers to plan where we want to go in the future.”

Apollo 17 landing site taken by LRO in its lower orbit, with 25 cm per pixel. Credit: NASA/Goddard/ASU

Apollo 17 landing site from the regular 50 km altitude and about 50 cm per pixel. Credit: NASA/ Goddard/ ASU

Compare in the images above the Apollo 17 landing site with 25 cm per pixel (top) and 50 cm per pixel (bottom).

Most notable are the tracks where the astronauts walked show up better, and details of the landers/descent stages can be resolved better.

Robinson said he was looking at the new images of the Apollo 17 landing site in Taurus Littrow Valley with Apollo 17 astronaut Jack Schmitt and Schmitt said “You need to image the whole valley at this resolution!”

This is the third resolution of Apollo sites that the LRO team has released — the first came from LRO’s commissioning phase where the altitude was about 100 km and the resolution was about 1 meter per pixel; next came the release of images from an altitude of about 50 km, with a resolution of about 50 cm per pixel; and now from about 21-22 km altitude with a resolution of 25 cm per pixel.

“These are the sharpest images of Apollo landing sites we’ll probably ever get with LRO,” said Rich Vondrak, LRO project scientist, “as we’ll never go as low in altitude as we were in the past month.”

LRO has now returned to its circular orbit of 50 km above the surface. This altitude requires monthly reboosts and since keeping LRO in that orbit would quickly exhaust the remaining fuel, in mid-December, LRO will move to an elliptical orbit, (30 km over south pole and 200 km over north pole). LRO will be able to stay in this orbit for several more years.

“This has been a highly productive mission, releasing a total of 245 terabytes of data — which would be a stack of 52,000 DVDs,” Vondrak said. Next week the science team will put out their 7th public release of data to the Planetary Data System, making all that data available to the public.

The paths left by astronauts Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell on both Apollo 14 moon walks are visible in this image. (At the end of the second moon walk, Shepard famously hit two golf balls.) The descent stage of the lunar module Antares is also visible. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/ASU

Robinson noted that the details of what pieces of equipment are in each location are verified by images taken from the surface by the astronauts. He was asked about the flags and if they are still standing: “All we can really see is the spots where the flag was planted because the astronauts tramped down the regolith. I’m not sure if the flags still exist, given the extreme heat and cold cycle and the harsh UV environment. The flags were made of nylon, and personally I would be surprised if anything was left of them since it has been over 40 years since they were left on the Moon and the flags we have here on Earth fade after they are left outside for one summer. If the flags are still there they are probably in pretty rough shape.”

The tracks made in 1969 by astronauts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean, the third and fourth humans to walk on the moon, can be seen in this LRO image of the Apollo 12 site. The location of the descent stage for Apollo 12's lunar module, Intrepid, also can be seen. Credit: NASA/Goddard/ASU

Since we can still see the tracks and equipment looking unchanged (at least from this vantage point) one reporter asked if these items will be on the Moon forever. “Forever is a long time, so no, they won’t be there forever,” Robinson replied. “The Moon is constantly bombarded by micrometeorites, and slowly over time the tracks will disappear, then the smaller pieces of equipment will disappear, and eventually the decent stages will probably get blasted by an a larger asteroid. The estimate is that rocks erode 1 mm per million years. In human terms it may seems like forever, but geologic terms, there will be no traces of Apollo exploration in 10 to 100 million years.”

This video shows more info and a “zoom in” of the sites:

Sources: Media briefing, NASA, LROC

Book Review: Lunar and Planetary Rovers

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Ordinarily if a book attempts to cover crewed and unmanned missions – the book is a compilation of space flight history in general. This is not the case when it comes to Springer/Praxis’ offering Lunar and Planetary Rovers. Written by Anthony Young, the book details both crewed (the Apollo “J” missions) and unmanned rovers (Pathfinder, Mars Exploration Rovers and Curiosity). The book is not a perfect blending of the two interconnected, yet separate programs – but it does have much to offer.

First published in 2010, the book is a well-researched, detailed account of the lunar rovers that flew on Apollos 15, 16 and 17 and the robotic explorers that have scoured the face of the red planet – Mars.

Lunar and Planetary Rovers covers both the manned rovers used on the final three Apollo lunar missions and the unmanned rovers used to explore the surface of Mars - under one book. Photo Credit: NASA/Jack Schmitt

Lunar and Planetary Rovers fills a need for an account of efforts to get wheels on other worlds. The book is filled with numerous photographs (both color and black and white) that have never been published before. In terms of the Apollo Program, Lunar and Planetary Rovers is replete with quotes from the astronauts that drove the lunar rovers on the Moon. In terms of the unmanned planetary rovers, the book pulls from the engineers and scientists that made (and make) these machines work.

The book is 305 pages long. It could have stood to be a few pages longer. One glaring omission in the general body of the book is that of the Lunokhods (these amazing machines are mentioned in the appendix of the book). Given that the Lunokhods bridge the gap between the Apollo Program’s manned lunar rovers (in that they both rolled across the lunar regolith) and the robotic planetary rovers – this is a fairly significant gap in coverage of the topic. The book also does not tie these two, separate, programs together very well (the jump from one topic to the other is jarring and not done consistently).

For some reason, Russia's Lunokhod Rover, the first unmanned rover to explore another world, is only mentioned in passing - at the very end of the book. Photo Credit: NASA

Even when one considers this slight flaw – the book still provides an accurate and useful history of rovers. Lunar and Planetary Rovers can be purchased on the secondary market (Amazon) for approximately $5 (that is including shipping and handling) the book is a good buy for those wanting information concerning the topic. For those that are not interested in the traditional, paper, format a Kindle edition is available for around $25.

With the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) or Curiosity as it is more commonly known currently scheduled to take place this November – this book serves as a historical reminder as to how the technology employed by Curiosity was both developed and refined.

Lunar and Planetary Rovers details all of the rovers to traverse the surface of the red planet, from the Mars Pathfinder; seen here, to Curiosity - currently set to launch on Nov. 25, 2011. Photo Credit: NASA.gov