The first student selected photos of the Moon’s surface snapped by NASA’s new pair of student named Lunar Mapping orbiters – Ebb & Flow – have just been beamed back and show an eerie view looking back to the Home Planet – and all of Humanity – barely rising above the pockmarked terrain of the mysterious far side of our nearest neighbor in space.
Congratulations to Americas’ Youth on an outstanding and inspiring choice !!
The student photo is reminiscent of one of the iconic images of Space Exploration – the first full view of the Earth from the Moon taken by NASA’s Lunar Orbiter 1 back in August 1966 (see below).
The images were taken in the past few days by the MoonKAM camera system aboard NASA’s twin GRAIL spacecraft currently circling overhead in polar lunar orbit, and previously known as GRAIL A and B. The formation-flying probes are soaring over the Moon’s north and south poles.
The nearly identical ships were rechristened as Ebb and Flow after Fourth grade students from the Emily Dickinson Elementary School in Bozeman, Mont., won the honor to rename both spacecraft by submitting the winning entries in a nationwide essay competition sponsored by NASA.
“The Bozeman 4th graders had the opportunity to target the first images soon after our science operations began,” said Maria Zuber, GRAIL principal investigator of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., to Universe Today.
“It is impossible to overstate how thrilled and excited we are !”
The initial packet of some 66 student-requested digital images from the Bozeman kids were taken by the Ebb spacecraft from March 15-17 and downlinked to Earth March 20. They sure have lots of exciting classwork ahead analyzing all those lunar features !
“GRAIL’s science mapping phase officially began on March 6 and we are collecting science data,” Zuber stated.
GRAIL’s science goal is to map our Moon’s gravity field to the highest precision ever. This will help deduce the deep interior composition, formation and evolution of the Moon and other rocky bodies such as Earth and also determine the nature of the Moon’s hidden core.
Engaging students and the public in science and space exploration plays a premier role in the GRAIL project. GRAIL is NASA’s first planetary mission to carry instruments – in the form of cameras – fully dedicated to education and public outreach.
Over 2,700 schools in 52 countries have signed up to participate in MoonKAM.
5th to 8th grade students can send suggestions for lunar surface targets to the GRAIL MoonKAM Mission Operations Center at UC San Diego, Calif. Students will use the images to study lunar features such as craters, highlands, and maria while also learning about future landing sites.
NASA calls MoonKAM – “The Universe’s First Student-Run Planetary Camera”. MoonKAM means Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students.
The MoonKAM project is managed by Dr Sally Ride, America’s first female astronaut.
“What might seem like just a cool activity for these kids may very well have a profound impact on their futures,” Ride said in a NASA statement. “The students really are excited about MoonKAM, and that translates into an excitement about science and engineering.”
“MoonKAM is based on the premise that if your average picture is worth a thousand words, then a picture from lunar orbit may be worth a classroom full of engineering and science degrees,” says Zuber. “Through MoonKAM, we have an opportunity to reach out to the next generation of scientists and engineers. It is great to see things off to such a positive start.”
Altogether there are eight MoonKAM cameras aboard Ebb and Flow – one 50 mm lens and three 6 mm lenses. Each probe is the size of a washing machine and measures just over 3 feet in diameter and height.
Snapping the first images was delayed a few days by the recent series of powerful solar storms.
“Due to the extraordinary intensity of the storms we took the precaution of turning off the MoonKAMs until the solar flux dissipates a bit,” Zuber told me.
“GRAIL weathered the storm well. The spacecraft and instrument are healthy and we are continuing to collect science data.”
The washing-machine sized probes have been flying in tandem around the Moon since entering lunar orbit in back to back maneuvers over the New Year’s weekend. Engineers spent the past two months navigating the spaceship duo into lower, near-polar and near-circular orbits with an average altitude of 34 miles (55 kilometers) that are optimized for science data collection and simultaneously checking out the spacecraft systems.
Ebb and Flow were launched to the Moon on September 10, 2011 aboard a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida and took a circuitous 3.5 month low energy path to the moon to minimize the overall costs.
The Apollo astronauts reached the Moon in just 3 days. NASA’s next generation Orion space capsule currently under development will send American astronauts back to lunar orbit by 2021 or sooner.
NASA has just granted an extension to the GRAIL mission. Watch for my follow-up report detailing the expanded science goals of GRAIL’s extended lunar journey.
NASA’s twin lunar orbiting GRAIL (Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory) spacecraft christened Ebb and Flow have kicked off their science collection phase aimed at precisely mapping our Moon’s gravity field, interior composition and evolution, the science team informed Universe Today.
“GRAIL’s science mapping phase officially began Tuesday (March 6) and we are collecting science data,” said Maria Zuber, GRAIL principal investigator of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, to Universe Today.
“It is impossible to overstate how thrilled and excited we are !”
“The data appear to be of excellent quality,” Zuber told me.
GRAIL’s goal is to provide researchers with a better understanding of how the Moon, Earth and other rocky planets in the solar system formed and evolved over its 4.5 billion years of history.
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is currently mapping the gravity field of Asteroid Vesta in high resolution from low orbit.
Despite more than 100 missions to the Moon there is still a lot we don’t know about the Moon says Zuber, like why the near side is flooded with magma and smooth and the back side is rough, not smooth and completely different.
The formation-flying spacecraft will make detailed science measurements from lunar orbit with unparalleled precision to within 1 micron – the width of a human red blood cell – by transmitting Ka-band radio signals between each other and Earth to help unlock the mysteries of the Moon’s deep interior.
“We’ve worked on calibrating the alignment of the Ka-band antennae to establish the optimal alignment. We’ve verified the data pipeline and are spending a lot of time working with the raw data to make sure that we understand its intricacies,” Zuber explained.
The washing-machine sized probes have been flying in tandem around the Moon since entering lunar orbit in back to back maneuvers over the New Year’s weekend. Engineers have spent the past two months navigating the spaceship duo into lower, near-polar and near-circular orbits with an average altitude of 34 miles (55 kilometers), that are optimized for science data collection, and simultaneously checking out the spacecraft systems.
Ebb and Flow were launched to the Moon on September 10, 2011 aboard a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida and took a circuitous 3.5 month low energy path to the moon to minimize the overall costs. The Apollo astronauts reached the Moon in just 3 days.
I asked Zuber to describe the team’s activities putting the mirror image probes to work peering to the central core of our nearest neighbor in unprecedented detail.
“Last Wednesday (Feb. 29) we achieved the science orbit and on Thursday (March 1) we turned the spacecraft to ‘orbiter point’ configuration to test the instrument and to monitor temperatures and power.”
“When we turned on the instrument we established the satellite-to-satellite radio link immediately. All vital signs were nominal so we left the spacecraft in orbiter point configuration and have been collecting science data since then. At the same time, we’ve continued performing calibrations and monitoring spacecraft and instrument performance, such as temperatures, power, currents, voltages, etc., and all is well,” said Zuber.
Measurements gathered over the next 84 days will be used to create high-resolution maps of the Moon’s near side and far side gravitational fields that are 100 to 1000 times more precise than ever before and that will enable researchers to deduce the internal structure and composition of our nearest neighbor from the outer surface crust down to the deep hidden core.
As one satellite follows the other, in the same orbit, they will perform high precision range-rate measurements to precisely measure the changing distance between each other. As they fly over areas of greater and lesser gravity caused by visible features such as mountains, craters and masses hidden beneath the lunar surface, the distance between the two spacecraft will change slightly.
“GRAIL is great. Everything is in place to get science data now,” said Sami Asmar, a GRAIL co-investigator from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif. “Soon we’ll get a very high resolution and global gravity map of the Moon.”
The data collected will be translated into gravitational field maps of the Moon that will help unravel information about the makeup of the Moon’s core and interior composition.
GRAIL will gather three complete gravity maps over the three month mission which is expected to conclude around May 29. If the probes survive a solar eclipse in June and if NASA funding is available, then they may get a bonus 3 month extended mission.
NASA sponsored a nation-wide student contest for America’s Youth to choose new names for the twin probes originally known as GRAIL A and GRAIL B. 4th graders from the Emily Dickinson Elementary School in Bozeman, Montana submitted the winning entries -Ebb and Flow. The new names won because they astutely describe the probes movements in orbit to collect the science data.
The GRAIL twins are also equipped with a very special camera dubbed MoonKAM (Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students) whose purpose is to inspire kids to study science.
By having their names selected, the 4th graders from Emily Dickinson Elementary have also won the prize to choose the first target on the Moon to photograph with the MoonKAM cameras, which are managed by Dr Sally Ride, America’s first female astronaut.
“MoonKAMs on both Ebb and Flow were turned on Monday, March 5, and all appears well, Zuber said. “The Bozeman 4th graders will have the opportunity to target the first images a week after our science operations begin.”
A first look from GRAIL, showing the lunar far side! A camera aboard ‘Ebb’ — one of NASA’s twin Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) lunar spacecraft has returned its first unique view of the far side of the Moon. The camera is the MoonKAM, which is part of a special program for students to study the Moon.
A classroom of America’s Youth from an elementary school in Bozeman, Montana submitted the stellar winning entry in NASA’s nationwide student essay contest to rename the twin GRAIL lunar probes that just achieved orbit around our Moon on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day 2012
“Ebb” & “Flow” – are the dynamic duo’s official new names and were selected because they clearly illuminate the science goals of the gravity mapping spacecraft and how the Moon’s influence mightily affects Earth every day in a manner that’s easy for everyone to understand.
“The 28 students of Nina DiMauro’s class at the Emily Dickinson Elementary School have really hit the nail on the head,” said GRAIL principal investigator Prof. Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.
“We asked the youth of America to assist us in getting better names.”
“We chose Ebb and Flow because it’s the daily example of how the Moon’s gravity is working on the Earth,” said Zuber during a media briefing held today (Jan. 17) at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. The terms ebb and flow refer to the movement of the tides on Earth due to the gravitational pull from the Moon.
“We were really impressed that the students drew their inspiration by researching GRAIL and its goal of measuring gravity. Ebb and Flow truly capture the spirit and excitement of our mission.”
Ebb and Flow are flying in tandem around Earth’s only natural satellite, the first time such a feat has ever been attempted.
As they fly over mountains, craters and basins on the Moon, the spaceships will move back and forth in orbit in an “ebb and flow” like response to the changing lunar gravity field and transmit radio signals to precisely measure the variations to within 1 micron, the width of a red blood cell.
The breakthrough science expected from the mirror image twins will provide unprecedented insight into what lurks mysteriously hidden beneath the surface of our nearest neighbor and deep into the interior.
The winning names from the 4th Graders of Emily Dickinson Elementary School were chosen from essays submitted by nearly 900 classrooms across America with over 11,000 students from 45 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, Zuber explained.
The students themselves announced “Ebb” and “Flow” in a dramaric live broadcast televised on NASA TV via Skype.
“We are so thrilled that our names were chosen and excited to share this with you. We can’t believe we won! We are so honored. Thank you!” said Ms. DiMauro as the very enthusiastic students spelled out the names by holding up the individual letters one-by-one on big placards from their classroom desks in Montana.
Watch the 4th Grade Kids spell the names in this video!
Until now the pair of probes went by the rather uninspiring monikers of GRAIL “A” and “B”. GRAIL stands for Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory.
The twin crafts’ new names were selected jointly by Prof. Zuber and Dr. Sally Ride, America’s first woman astronaut, and announced during today’s NASA briefing.
NASA’s naming competition was open to K-12 students who submitted pairs of names and a short essay to justified their suggestions.
“Ebb” and “Flow” (GRAIL A and GRAIL B) are the size of washing machines and were launched side by side atop a Delta II booster rocket on September 10, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
They followed a circuitous 3.5 month low energy path to the Moon to minimize the fuel requirements and overall costs.
So far the probes have completed three burns of their main engines aimed at lowering and circularizing their initial highly elliptical orbits. The orbital period has also been reduced from 11.5 hours to just under 4 hours as of today.
“The science phase begins in early March,” said Zuber. At that time the twins will be flying in tandem at 55 kilometers (34 miles) altitude.
The GRAIL twins are also equipped with a very special camera dubbed MoonKAM (Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students) whose purpose is to inspire kids to study science.
“GRAIL is NASA’s first planetary spacecraft mission carrying instruments entirely dedicated to education and public outreach,” explained Sally Ride. “Over 2100 classrooms have signed up so far to participate.”
Thousands of middle school students in grades five through eight will select target areas on the lunar surface and send requests for study to the GRAIL MoonKAM Mission Operations Center in San Diego which is managed by Dr. Ride in collaboration with undergraduate students at the University of California in San Diego.
By having their names selected, the 4th graders from Emily Dickinson Elementary have also won the prize to choose the first target on the Moon to photograph with the MoonKam cameras, said Ride.
Zuber notes that the first MoonKAM images will be snapped shortly after the 82 day science phase begins on March 8.
No – but you might think so gazing at these dazzling new images of the Moon and the ISS snapped by a NASA photographer yesterday (Jan. 4) operating from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
Check out this remarkable series of NASA photos above and below showing the ISS and her crew of six humans crossing the face of Earth’s Moon above the skies over Houston, Texas. And see my shot below of the Moon near Jupiter – in conjunction- taken just after the two GRAIL spacecraft achieved lunar orbit on New Year’s weekend.
In the photo above, the ISS is visible at the upper left during the early evening of Jan. 4, and almost looks like it’s in orbit around the Moon. In fact the ISS is still circling about 248 miles (391 kilometers) above Earth with the multinational Expedition 30 crew of astronauts and cosmonauts hailing from the US, Russia and Holland.
The amazing photo here is a composite image showing the ISS transiting the Moon’s near side above Houston in the evening hours of Jan 4.
The ISS is the brightest object in the night sky and easily visible to the naked eye if it’s in sight.
With a pair of binoculars, it’s even possible to see some of the stations structure like the solar panels, truss segments and modules.
Take a good close look at the Moon today and consider this; Two new Moon’s just reached orbit.
NASA is ringing in the New Year with a double dose of champagne toasts celebrating the back to back triumphal insertions of a pair of tiny probes into tandem lunar orbits this weekend that seek to unravel the hidden mysteries lurking deep inside the Moon and figure out how the inner solar system formed eons ago.
“Now we have them both in orbit. What a great feeling!!!!” NASA manager Jim Green told Universe Today just minutes after the thruster firing was done. Green is NASA’s Director of Planetary Science and witnessed the events inside Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Ca.
“It’s the best New Year’s ever!!” Green gushed with glee.
The new lunar arrivals of GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B capped a perfect year for NASA’s Planetary Science research in 2011.
“Cheers in JPL mission control as everything is looking good for GRAIL-B. It’s going to be a great 2012!!” JPL tweeted shortly after confirming the burn successfully placed GRAIL-B into the desired elliptical orbit.
After years of hard work, GRAIL principal investigator Maria Zuber of MIT told Universe Today that she was very “relieved”, soon after hearing the good news at JPL Mission Control.
“Since GRAIL was originally selected I’ve believed this day would come,” Zuber told me shortly after the GRAIL-B engine firing was declared a success on New Year’s Day.
“But it’s difficult to convey just how relieved I am right now. Time for the Science Team to start their engines !”
At 2:43 p.m. PST (5:43 p.m. EST) on New Year’s Day, the main thruster aboard GRAIL-B automatically commenced firing to slow down the spacecraft’s approach speed by about 430 MPH (691 kph) and allow it to be captured into orbit by the Moon’s gravity. The preprogrammed maneuver lasted about 39 minutes and was nearly identical to the GRAIL-A firing 25 hours earlier.
The hydrazine fueled main thrusters placed the dynamic spacecraft duo into near-polar, highly elliptical orbits.
Over the next two months, engineers will trim the orbits of both spacecraft to a near-polar, near-circular formation flying orientation. Their altitudes will be lowered to about 34 miles (55 kilometers) and the orbital periods trimmed from their initial 11.5 hour duration to about two hours.
The science phase begins in March 2012. For 82 days, the mirror image GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B probes will be flying in tandem with an average separation of about 200 kilometers as the Moon rotates beneath.
“GRAIL is a Journey to the Center of the Moon,” Zuber explained at a media briefing. “It will use exceedingly precise measurements of gravity to reveal what the inside of the Moon is like.”
As one satellite follows the other, in the same orbit, they will perform high precision range-rate measurements to precisely measure the changing distance between each other to within 1 micron, the width of a red blood cell, using a Ka-band instrument.
When the first satellite goes over a higher mass concentration, or higher gravity, it will speed up slightly. And that will increase the distance. Then as the second satellite goes over, that distance will close again.
The data returned will be translated into gravitational field maps of the Moon that will help unravel information about the makeup of the Moon’s mysterious core and interior composition. GRAIL will gather three complete gravity maps over the three month mission.
“There have been many missions that have gone to the Moon, orbited the Moon, landed on the Moon, brought back samples of the Moon,” said Zuber. “But the missing piece of the puzzle in trying to understand the Moon is what the deep interior is like.”
“Is there a core? How did the core form? How did the interior convect? What are the impact basins on the near-side flooded with magma and give us this Man-in-the-Moon shape whereas the back side of the Moon doesn’t have any of this? These are all mysteries that despite the fact we’ve studied the Moon before, we don’t understand how that has happened. GRAIL is a mission that is going to tell us that.”
“We think the answer is locked in the interior,” Zuber elaborated.
How will the twins be oriented in orbit to gather the data ?
“The probes will be pointed at one another to make the highly precise measurements,” said GRAIL co-investigator Sami Asmar of JPL to Universe Today. “The concept has heritage from the US/German GRACE earth orbiting satellites which mapped Earth’s gravity field. GRACE required the use of GPS satellites for exactly knowing the position, but there is no GPS at the Moon. So GRAIL was altered to compensate for no GPS at the Moon.”
GRAIL will map the gravity field by 100 to 1000 times better than ever before.
“We will learn more about the interior of the Moon with GRAIL than all previous lunar missions combined,” says Ed Weiler, the recently retired NASA Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate in Washington, DC.
The GRAIL twins blasted off from Florida mounted side by side atop a Delta II booster on September 10, 2011 and took a circuitous 3.5 month low energy path to the Moon to minimize the overall costs.
So when you next look at the sky tonight and in the coming weeks just imagine those mirror image GRAIL twins circling about seeeking to determine how we all came to be !
Cheers erupted after the first of NASA’s twin $496 Million Moon Mapping probes entered orbit on New Year’s Eve (Dec. 31) upon completion of the 40 minute main engine burn essential for insertion into lunar orbit. The small GRAIL spacecraft will map the lunar interior with unprecedented precision to deduce the Moon’s hidden interior composition.
“Engines stopped. It’s in a great initial orbit!!!! ”
– NASA’s Jim Green told Universe Today, just moments after verification of a successful engine burn and injection of the GRAIL-A spacecraft into an initial eliptical orbit. Green is the Director of Planetary Science at NASA HQ and was stationed inside Mission Control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Ca (see photos below).
“Pop the bubbly & toast the moon! NASA’s GRAIL-A spacecraft is in lunar orbit,” NASA tweeted shortly after verifying the critical firing was done. “Burn complete! GRAIL-A is now orbiting the moon and awaiting the arrival of its twin GRAIL-B on New Year’s Day.”
The firing of the hydrazine fueled thruster was concluded at 5 PM EST (2 PM PST) today, Dec. 31, 2011 and was the capstone to a stupendous year for science at NASA.
“2011 was definitely the best year ever for NASA Planetary Science,” Green told me today. “2011 was the “Year of the Solar System”.
“GRAIL-A is in a highly elliptical polar orbit that takes about 11.5 hours to complete.”
“We see about the first eight to ten minutes of the start of the burn as it heads towards the Moon’s southern hemisphere, continues as GRAIL goes behind the moon and the burn ends about eight minutes or so after it exits and reappears over the north polar region.”
“So we watch the beginning of the burn and the end of the burn via the Deep Space Network (DSN). The same thing will be repeated about 25 hours later with GRAIL-B on New Year’s Day [Jan 1, 2012],” Green explained.
The orbit is approximately 56-miles (90-kilometers) by 5,197-miles (8,363-kilometers around the moon. The probe barreled towards the moon at 4400 MPH and skimmed to within about 68 miles over the South Pole.
“My resolution for the new year is to unlock lunar mysteries and understand how the moon, Earth and other rocky planets evolved,” said Maria Zuber, GRAIL principal investigator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “Now, with GRAIL-A successfully placed in orbit around the moon, we are one step closer to achieving that goal.”
Zuber witnessed the events in Mission Control along with JPL Director Charles Elachi (see photos).
The mirror twin, known as GRAIL-B, was less than 30,000 miles (48,000 km) from the moon as GRAIL A achieved orbit and closing at a rate of 896 mph (1,442 kph). GRAIL-B’s insertion burn is slated to begin on New Year’s Day at 2:05 p.m. PST (5:05 p.m. EST) and will last about 39 minutes.
GRAIL-B is about 25 hours behind GRAIL-A, allowing the teams enough time to rest and prepare, said David Lehman, GRAIL project manager at JPL.
“With GRAIL-A in lunar orbit we are halfway home,” said Lehman. “Tomorrow may be New Year’s everywhere else, but it’s another work day around the moon and here at JPL for the GRAIL team.”
Engineers will then gradually lower the tandem flying satellites into a near-polar near-circular orbital altitude of about 34 miles (55 kilometers) with an average separation of about 200 km. The 82 day science phase will begin in March 2012.
“GRAIL will globally map the moon’s gravity field to high precision to deduce information about the interior structure, density and composition of the lunar interior. We’ll evaluate whether there even is a solid or liquid core or a mixture and advance the understanding of the thermal evolution of the moon and the solar system,” explained GRAIL co-investigator Sami Asmar to Universe Today. Asmar is from JPL.
New names for the dynamic duo may be announced on New Year’s Day. Zuber said that the winning names of a student essay contest drew more than 1000 entries.
The GRAIL team is making a major public outreach effort to involve school kids in the mission and inspire them to study science. Each spacecraft carries 4 MoonKAM cameras. Middle school students will help select the targets.
“Over 2100 Middle schools have already signed up to participate in the MoonKAM project,” Zuber told reporters.
“We’ve had a great response to the MoonKAM project and we’re still accepting applications.”
MoonKAM is sponsored by Dr. Sally Ride, America’s first female astronaut. The first images are expected after the science mission begins in March 2012.
The GRAIL twins blasted off from Florida on September 10, 2011 for a 3.5 month low energy path to the moon so a smaller booster rocket could be used to cut costs.
A year ago, 2011 was proclaimed as the “Year of the Solar System” by NASA’s Planetary Science division. And what a year of excitement it was indeed for the planetary science community, amateur astronomers and the general public alike !
NASA successfully delivered astounding results on all fronts – On the Story of How We Came to Be.
“2011 was definitely the best year ever for NASA Planetary Science!” said Jim Green in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. Green is the Director of Planetary Science for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA HQ. “The Search for Life is a significant priority for NASA.”
This past year was without doubt simply breathtaking in scope in terms of new missions, new discoveries and extraordinary technical achievements. The comprehensive list of celestial targets investigated in 2011 spanned virtually every type of object in our solar system – from the innermost planet to the outermost reaches nearly touching interplanetary space.
There was even a stunningly evocative picture showing “All of Humanity” – especially appropriate now in this Holiday season !
Three brand new missions were launched and ongoing missions orbited a planet and an asteroid and flew past a comet.
“NASA has never had the pace of so many planetary launches in such a short time,” said Green.
And three missions here were awarded ‘Best of 2011’ for innovation !
Here’s the Top NASA Planetary Science Stories of 2011 – ‘The Year of the Solar System’ – in chronological order
1. Stardust-NExT Fly By of Comet Tempel 1
Starting from the first moments of 2011 at the dawn of Jan. 1, hopes were already running high for planetary scientists and engineers busily engaged in setting up a romantic celestial date in space between a volatile icy comet and an aging, thrusting probe on Valentine’s Day.
The comet chasing Stardust-Next spacecraft successfully zoomed past Comet Tempel 1 on Feb. 14 at 10.9 km/sec (24,000 MPH) after flying over 6 Billion kilometers (3.5 Billion mi).
The craft approached within 178 km (111mi) and snapped 72 astonishingly detailed high resolution science images over barely 8 minutes. It also fulfilled the teams highest hopes by photographing the human-made crater created on Tempel 1 in 2005 by a cosmic collision with a penetrator hurled by NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft. The probe previously flew by Comet Wild 2 in 2004 and returned cometary coma particles to Earth in 2006
Tempel 1 is the first comet to be visited by two spaceships from Earth and provided the first-ever opportunity to compare observations on two successive passages around the Sun.
Don Brownlee, the original Principal Investigator, summarized the results for Universe Today; “A great bonus of the mission was the ability to flyby two comets and take images and measurements. The wonderfully successful flyby of Comet Tempel 1 was a great cap to the 12 year mission and provided a great deal of new information to study the diversity among comets.”
“The new images of Tempel showed features that form a link between seemingly disparate surface features of the 4 comets imaged by spacecraft. Combining data on the same comet from the Deep Impact and Stardust missions has provided important new insights in to how comet surfaces evolve over time and how they release gas and dust into space”.
2. MESSENGER at Mercury
On March 18, the Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging, or MESSENGER, spacecraft became the first spacecraft inserted into orbit around Mercury, the innermost planet.
So far MESSENGER has completed 1 solar day – 176 Earth days- circling above Mercury. The probe has collected a treasure trove of new data from the seven instruments onboard yielding a scientific bonanza; these include global imagery of most of the surface, measurements of the planet’s surface chemical composition, topographic evidence for significant amounts of water ice, magnetic field and interactions with the solar wind.
“MESSENGER discovered that Mercury has an enormous core, larger than Earth’s. We are trying to understand why that is and why Mercury’s density is similar to Earth’s,” Jim Green explained to Universe Today.
“The primary mission lasts 2 solar days, equivalent to 4 Mercury years.”
“NASA has granted a 1 year mission extension, for a total of 8 Mercury years. This will allow the team to understand the environment at Mercury during Solar Maximum for the first time. All prior spacecraft observations were closer to solar minimum,” said Green.
MESSENGER was launched in 2004 and the goal is to produce the first global scientific observations of Mercury and piece together the puzzle of how Mercury fits in with the origin and evolution of our solar system.
NASA’s Mariner 10 was the only previous robotic probe to explore Mercury, during three flyby’s back in the mid-1970’s early in the space age.
3. Dawn Asteroid Orbiter
The Dawn spacecraft achieved orbit around the giant asteroid Vesta in July 2011 after a four year interplanetary cruise and began transmitting the history making first ever close-up observations of the mysteriously diverse and alien world that is nothing short of a ‘Space Spectacular’.
“We do not have a good analog to Vesta anywhere else in the Solar System,” Chris Russell said to Universe Today. Russell, from UCLA, is the scientific Principal Investigator for Dawn.
Before Dawn, Vesta was just another fuzzy blob in the most powerful telescopes. Dawn has completely unveiled Vesta as a remarkably dichotomous, heavily battered and pockmarked world that’s littered with thousands of craters, mountains and landslides and ringed by mystifying grooves and troughs. It will unlock details about the elemental abundances, chemical composition and interior structure of this marvelously intriguing body.
Cataclysmic collisions eons ago excavated Vesta so it lacks a south pole. Dawn discovered that what unexpectedly remains is an enormous mountain some 16 miles (25 kilometers) high, twice the height of Mt. Everest.
Dawn is now about midway through its 1 year mission at Vesta which ends in July 2012 with a departure for Ceres, the largest asteroid. So far the framing cameras have snapped more than 10,000 never-before-seen images.
“What can be more exciting than to explore an alien world that until recently was virtually unknown!. ” Dr. Marc Rayman said to Universe Today. Rayman is Dawn’s Chief Engineer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.
“Dawn is NASA at its best: ambitious, exciting, innovative, and productive.”
4. Juno Jupiter Orbiter
The solar powered Juno spacecraft was launched on Aug. 5 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, to embark on a five year, 2.8 billion kilometer (1.7 Billion mi) trek to Jupiter, our solar system’s largest planet. It was the first of three NASA planetary science liftoffs scheduled in 2011.
Juno’s goal is to map to the depths of the planets interior and elucidate the ingredients of Jupiter’s genesis hidden deep inside. These measurements will help answer how Jupiter’s birth and evolution applies to the formation of the other eight planets.
The 4 ton spacecraft will arrive at the gas giant in July 2016 and fire its braking rockets to go into a polar orbit and circle the planet 33 times over about one year.
The suite of nine instruments will scan the gas giant to find out more about the planets origins, interior structure and atmosphere, measure the amount of water and ammonia, observe the aurora, map the intense magnetic field and search for the existence of a solid planetary core.
“Jupiter is the Rosetta Stone of our solar system,” said Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “It is by far the oldest planet, contains more material than all the other planets, asteroids and comets combined and carries deep inside it the story of not only the solar system but of us. Juno is going there as our emissary — to interpret what Jupiter has to say.”
5. Opportunity reaches Endeavour Crater on Mars
The long lived Opportunity rover finally arrived at the rim of the vast 14 mile (22 kilometer) wide Endeavour Crater in mid-August 2011 following an epic three year trek across treacherous dune fields – a feat once thought unimaginable. All told, Opportunity has driven more than 34 km ( 21 mi) since landing on the Red Planet way back in 2004 for a mere 90 sol mission.
In November, the rover discovered the most scientifically compelling evidence yet for the flow of liquid water on ancient Mars in the form of a water related mineral vein at a spot dubbed “Homestake” along an eroded ridge of Endeavour’s rim.
Read my story about the Homestake discovery here, along with our panoramic mosaic showing the location – created by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo and published by Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on 12 Dec. 2011.
Watch for my upcoming story detailing Opportunity’s accomplishments in 2011.
6. GRAIL Moon Mappers
The Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, or GRAIL mission is comprised of twin spacecraft tasked to map the moon’s gravity and study the structure of the lunar interior from crust to core.
The dynamic duo lifted off from Cape Canaveral on September 10, 2011 atop the last Delta II rocket that will likely soar to space from Florida. After a three month voyage of more than 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) since blastoff, the two mirror image GRAIL spacecraft dubbed Grail-A and GRAIL-B are sailing on a trajectory placing them on a course over the Moon’s south pole on New Year’s weekend.
Each spacecraft will fire the braking rockets for about 40 minutes for insertion into Lunar Orbit about 25 hours apart on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
Engineers will then gradually lower the satellites to a near-polar near-circular orbital altitude of about 34 miles (55 kilometers).
The spacecraft will fly in tandem and the 82 day science phase will begin in March 2012.
“GRAIL is a Journey to the Center of the Moon”, says Maria Zuber, GRAIL principal investigator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “GRAIL will rewrite the book on the formation of the moon and the beginning of us.”
“By globally mapping the moon’s gravity field to high precision scientists can deduce information about the interior structure, density and composition of the lunar interior. We’ll evaluate whether there even is a solid or liquid core or a mixture and advance the understanding of the thermal evolution of the moon and the solar system,” explained co-investigator Sami Asmar to Universe Today. Asmar is from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
7. Curiosity Mars Rover
The Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover soared skywards on Nov. 26, the last of 2011’s three planetary science missions. Curiosity is the newest, largest and most technologically sophisticated robotic surveyor that NASA has ever assembled.
“MSL packs the most bang for the buck yet sent to Mars.” John Grotzinger, the Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist of the California Institute of Technology, told Universe Today.
The three meter long robot is the first astrobiology mission since the Viking landers in the 1970’s and specifically tasked to hunt for the ‘Ingredients of Life’ on Mars – the most Earth-like planet in our Solar System.
Video caption: Action packed animation depicts sequences of Curiosity departing Earth, the nail biting terror of the never before used entry, descent and landing on the Martian surface and then looking for signs of life at Gale Crater during her minimum two year expedition across hitherto unseen and unexplored Martian landscapes, mountains and craters. Credit: NASA
Curiosity will gather and analyze samples of Martian dirt in pursuit of the tell-tale signatures of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based building blocks of life as we know it.
NASA is targeting Curiosity to a pinpoint touch down inside the 154 km (96 mile) wide Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012. The crater exhibits exposures of phyllosilicates and other minerals that may have preserved evidence of ancient or extant Martian life and is dominated by a towering 3 mile (5 km) high mountain.
“10 science instruments are all aimed at a mountain whose stratigraphic layering records the major breakpoints in the history of Mars’ environments over likely hundreds of millions of years, including those that may have been habitable for life,” Grotzinger told me.
This past year Ken was incredibly fortunate to witness the ongoing efforts of many of these magnificent endeavors.
In less than three days, NASA will deliver a double barreled New Year’s package to our Moon when an unprecedented pair of science satellites fire up their critical braking thrusters for insertion into lunar orbit on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
NASA’s dynamic duo of GRAIL probes are “GO” for Lunar Orbit Insertion said the mission team at a briefing for reporters today, Dec. 28. GRAIL’s goal is to exquisitely map the moons interior from the gritty outer crust to the depths of the mysterious core with unparalled precision.
“GRAIL is a Journey to the Center of the Moon”, said Maria Zuber, GRAIL principal investigator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge at the press briefing.
This newfound knowledge 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 time.
After a three month voyage of more than 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) since launching from Florida on Sept. 10, 2011, NASA’s twin GRAIL spacecraft, dubbed Grail-A and GRAIL-B, are now on final approach and are rapidly closing in on the Moon following a trajectory that will hurl them low over the south pole and into an initially near polar elliptical lunar orbit lasting 11.5 hours.
As of today, Dec. 28, GRAIL-A is 65,860 miles (106,000 kilometers) from the moon and closing at a speed of 745 mph (1,200 kph). GRAIL-B is 79,540 miles (128,000 kilometers) from the moon and closing at a speed of 763 mph (1,228 kph).
The lunar bound probes are formally named Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) and each one is the size of a washing machine.
The long-duration trajectory was actually beneficial to the mission controllers and the science team because it permitted more time to assess the spacecraft’s health and check out the probes single science instrument – the Ultra Stable Oscillator – and allow it to equilibrate to a stable operating temperature long before it starts making the crucial science measurements.
The duo will arrive 25 hours apart and be placed into orbit starting at 1:21 p.m. PST (4:21 p.m. EST) for GRAIL-A on Dec. 31, and 2:05 p.m. PST (5:05 p.m. EST) on Jan. 1 for GRAIL-B, said David Lehman, project manager for GRAIL at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.
“The GRAIL A burn will last 40 minutes and the GRAIL-B burn will last 38 minutes. One hour after the burn we will know the results and make an announcement,” Lehman explained.
The thrusters must fire on time and for the full duration for the probes to achieve orbit. The braking maneuver is preprogrammed and done completely automatically.
Over the next few weeks, the altitude of the spacecraft will be gradually lowered to 34 miles (55 kilometers) into a near-polar, near-circular orbit with an orbital period of two hours. The science phase will then begin in March 2012.
“So far there have been over 100 missions to the Moon and hundreds of pounds of rock have been returned. But there is still a lot we don’t know about the Moon even after the Apollo lunar landings,” explained Zuber.
“We don’t know why the near side of the Moon is different from the far side. In fact we know more about Mars than the Moon.”
GRAIL’s science collection phase will last 82 days. The two spacecraft will transmit radio signals that will precisely measure the distance between them to within a few microns, less than the width of a human hair.
As they orbit in tandem, the moons gravity will change – increasing and decreasing due to the influence of both visible surface features such as mountains and craters and unknown concentrations of masses hidden beneath the lunar surface. This will cause the relative velocity and the distance between the probes to change.
The resulting data will be translated into a high-resolution map of the Moon’s gravitational field and also enable determinations of the moon’s inner composition.
The GRAIL mission may be extended for another 6 months if the solar powered probes survive a power draining and potentially deadly lunar eclipse due in June 2012.
Engineers would significantly lower the orbit to an altitude of barely 15 to 20 miles above the surface to gain even further insights into the lunar interior.
The twin probes are also equipped with 4 cameras each – named MoonKAM – that will be used by middle school students to photograph student selected targets.
The MoonKAM project is led Dr. Sally Ride, America’s first woman astronaut as a way to motivate kids to study math and science.
JPL manages the GRAIL mission for NASA.
Stay tuned for Universe Today updates amidst the News Year’s festivities.
Student Alert ! – Here’s your once in a lifetime chance to name Two NASA robots speeding at this moment to the Moon on a super science mission to map the lunar gravity field. They were successfully launched from the Earth to the Moon on September 10, 2011. Right now the robots are called GRAIL A and GRAIL B. But, they need real names that inspire. And they need those names real soon. The goal is to “capture the spirit and excitement of lunar exploration”, says NASA – the US Space Agency.
NASA needs your help and has just announced an essay writing contest open to students in Grades K – 12 at schools in the United States. The deadline to submit your essay is November 11, 2011. GRAIL stands for “Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory.”
The rules state you need to pick two names and explain your choices in 500 words or less in English. Your essay can be any length up to 500 words – even as short as a paragraph. But, DO NOT write more than 500 words or your entry will be automatically disqualified.
Learn more about the GRAIL Essay Naming Contest here:
The GRAIL A and B lunar spaceships are twins – just like those other awe inspiring robots “Spirit” and “Opportunity” , which were named by a 10 year old girl student and quickly became famous worldwide and forever because of their exciting science missions of Exploration and Discovery.They arrive in Lunar Orbit on New Year’s Day 2012.
And there is another way that students can get involved in NASA’s GRAIL mission.
GRAIL A & B are both equipped with four student-run MoonKAM cameras. Students can suggest targets for the cameras. Then the cameras will take close-up views of the lunar surface, taking tens of thousands of images and sending them back to Earth.
“Over 1100 middle schools have signed up to participate in the MoonKAM education and public outreach program to take images and engage in exploration,” said Prof. Maria Zuber of MIT.
Prof. Zuber is the top scientist on the mission and she was very excited to announce the GRAIL Essay Naming contest right after the twin spaceships blasted off to the Moon on Sep 10, 2011 from Cape Canaveral in Florida.
What is the purpose of GRAIL ?
“GRAIL simply put, is a ‘Journey to the Center of the Moon’,” says Dr. Ed Weiler, NASA Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate in Washington, DC.
“It will probe the interior of the moon and map its gravity field by 100 to 1000 times better than ever before. We will learn more about the interior of the moon with GRAIL than all previous lunar missions combined. Precisely knowing what the gravity fields are will be critical in helping to land future human and robotic spacecraft. The moon is not very uniform. So it’s a dicey thing to fly orbits around the moon.”
“There have been many missions that have gone to the moon, orbited the moon, landed on the moon, brought back samples of the moon,” said Zuber. “But the missing piece of the puzzle in trying to understand the moon is what the deep interior is like.”
So, what are you waiting for.
Start thinking and writing. Students – You can be space explorers too !