September is Moon Month!

Jane Houston Jones from JPL provides information on what’s up for September, focusing on the Moon. The next few days will be a good time to look for the Apollo landing sites — and no, you won’t be able to see any details from Earth, even with a good telescope, but it is fun to try and locate the areas humans have walked on the Moon. Jane shows you how. And of course, the GRAIL mission to the Moon is scheduled to launch on Sept. 8. Learn more about the mission here.

And as a heads up, look for new images of the Apollo landing sites from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that will be released next week. LRO recently moved closer to the Moon to take new and improved images of these historic sites. We’ll share them as soon as they are available.

NASAs Lunar Mapping Duo Encapsulated and Ready for Sept. 8 Liftoff

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NASA’s powerful lunar mapping duo of GRAIL spacecraft are now poised for liftoff in just one weeks time on Thursday, Sept. 8.

Mission managers held a Flight Readiness Review on Wednesday (Aug.31) and gave a tentative approval to begin fueling the Delta II rockets second stage on Sept. 2 and 3 after evaluating all issues related to the rocket, launch pad and payloads.

Launch preparations are proceeding on schedule towards an early morning lift off from the seaside Space Launch Complex 17B (SLC-17B) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. There are two instantaneous launch windows at 8:37:06 a.m. and 9:16:12 a.m. EDT lasting one second each.

“Launch vehicle and spacecraft closeouts will begin on Tuesday, and the Launch Readiness Review is also scheduled for Tuesday morning,” NASA KSC spokesman George Diller told Universe Today.

“This morning’s launch countdown dress rehearsal went fine.”

“Delta II 2nd stage fueling has been rescheduled for Friday and Saturday [Sept. 2 and 3]. Last evening a software error was found in the launch processing system data base. ULA (United Launch Alliance) decided they would like to look for any additional errors before the fueling begins. There is no impact to the launch date and currently no work is scheduled on Sunday or on Labor Day,” said Diller.

The launch period extends through Oct. 19, with liftoff occurring approximately four minutes earlier each day in case of a delay. The flight plan was designed to avoid a pair of lunar eclipses occurring on December 10th, 2011 and June 4th 2012 which would interfere with the missions operations and science.

The team is keeping a close watch on the weather as the season’s next Atlantic Ocean storm heads westwards. Katia has just been upgraded to Hurricane status and follows closely on the heels of the continuing vast destruction, misery and deaths caused by Hurricane Irene earlier this week.

“The preliminary weather forecast is favorable for launch day as long as the wind remains out of the west as is currently forecast for that time of the morning,” Diller told me.

Twin GRAIL Lunar Mappers are secured atop Delta II rocket and await enclose in the Delta payload fairing. The fairing will protect the spacecraft from the impact of aerodynamic pressure and heating during ascent and will be jettisoned once the spacecraft is outside the Earth's atmosphere. Credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann

The twin probes known as GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B (Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory) were encapsulated inside the clamshell like payload fairing on Aug. 23 The nearly identical spacecraft are mounted side by side and sit atop the Centaur upper stage.

The fairing shields the spacecraft from aerodynamic pressures, friction and extreme heating for the first few minutes of flight during ascent through the Earth atmosphere.

This Delta II Heavy booster rocket is the most powerful version of the Delta II family built by ULA. The booster’s first stage is augmented with larger diameter solid rocket motors.

GRAIL was processed for launch inside at the Astrotech payload processing facility in Titusville, Fla. See my GRAIL spacecraft photos from inside the Astrotech clean room facilities here.

“The GRAIL spacecraft inside the handling can departed Astrotech and arrived at the launch pad, SLC-17B on Aug. 18” said Tim Dunn, NASA’s Delta II Launch Director in an interview with Universe Today. “The spacecraft was then hoisted by crane onto the Delta II launch vehicle and the spacecraft mate operation was flawlessly executed by the combined ULA and NASA Delta II Team.”

An Integrated Systems Test (IST) of the mated booster and payload was completed on Aug. 22

Technicians prepare twin GRAIL spacecraft for enclosure in the Delta payload fairing. Credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann

The dynamic duo will orbit the moon in a tandam formation just 50 kilometers above the lunar surface with an average separation of 200 km. During the 90 day science phase the goal is to determine the structure of the lunar interior from crust to core and to advance understanding of the thermal evolution of the moon.

GRAIL-A & GRAIL-B will measure the lunar gravity field with unprecedented resolution up to 100 times improvement on the near side and 1000 times improvement for the far side.

NASA’s twin GRAIL Science Probes ready for Lunar Expedition
GRAIL B (left) and GRAIL A (right) spacecraft are mounted side by side on top of a payload adapter inside the clean room at Astrotech Space Operations facility. The spacecraft await lunar launch on Sept. 8, 2011. Credit: Ken Kremer

Read Ken’s continuing features about GRAIL

GRAIL Lunar Twins Mated to Delta Rocket at Launch Pad
GRAIL Twins ready for NASA Science Expedition to the Moon: Photo Gallery

GRAIL Lunar Twins Mated to Delta Rocket at Launch Pad

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With blastoff just 2 ½ weeks away, NASA’s GRAIL lunar twins completed a major milestone towards launch today (Aug. 18) when they were mated to the top of the Delta II Heavy rocket that will boost them to the moon. Launch is slated for Sept. 8 at 8:37 a.m. EDT.

This morning the tightly wrapped $496 Million duo took their last trip on Earth before beginning their nearly four month journey to the Moon. GRAIL A & GRAIL B were carefully transported 15 miles (25 km) from the clean room processing facility at the Astrotech Space Operation’s payload processing facility in Titusville, Fla to Space Launch Complex 17B (SLC-17B) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

“The GRAIL spacecraft transportation convoy to SLC-17B departed Astrotech at 11:55 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, Aug. 17, “ said Tim Dunn, NASA’s Delta II Launch Director in an interview with Universe Today. “The spacecraft, inside the handling can, arrived at the launch pad, SLC-17B, at 4:00 a.m. this morning.”

“The spacecraft was then hoisted by the Mobile Service Tower crane onto the Delta II launch vehicle and the spacecraft mate was complete at 9:30 a.m.”

Crane lifts GRAIL A & B to the top of the Mobile Service Tower on Aug. 18. The probes are wrapped in protective plastic sheeting inside the handling can. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Technicians joined the nearly identical and side by side mounted spacecraft onto the top of the guidance section adapter of the Delta’s second stage. The Delta II was built by United Launch Alliance (ULA).

“Tomorrow, the GRAIL spacecraft team will perform functional testing on both the GRAIL A and GRAIL B spacecraft,” Dunn told me.

“The next major milestone will be performance of the Integrated Systems Test (IST) on Monday, (8/22/11).

“Today’s spacecraft mate operation was flawlessly executed by the combined ULA and NASA Delta II Team,” said Dunn.

These tests will confirm that the spacecraft is healthy after the fueling and transport operations. After further reviews of the rocket and spacecraft systems the GRAIL team will install the payload fairing around the lunar probes.

NASA’s twin GRAIL Science Probes ready for Lunar Expedition
GRAIL B (left) and GRAIL A (right) spacecraft are mounted side by side on top of a payload adapter inside the clean room at Astrotech Space Operations facility. The spacecraft await lunar launch on Sept. 8, 2011. Credit: Ken Kremer

NASA’s dynamic duo will orbit the moon to determine the structure of the lunar interior from crust to core and to advance understanding of the thermal evolution of the moon.

“We are about to finish one chapter in the GRAIL story and open another,” said Maria Zuber, GRAIL’s principal investigator, based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge in a statement. “Let me assure you this one is a real page-turner. GRAIL will rewrite the book on the formation of the moon and the beginning of us.”

The GRAIL launch will be the last for a Delta II in Florida.

GRAIL A & B lunar twins arrive at Pad 17B. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Technicians hoist GRAIL A & B lunar twins inside the handling can at Pad 17B. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Read my prior features about GRAIL
GRAIL Twins ready for NASA Science Expedition to the Moon: Photo Gallery

GRAIL Twins ready for NASA Science Expedition to the Moon: Photo Gallery

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NASA’s GRAIL twins – dubbed GRAIL-A & GRAIL-B – are ready to embark on America’s next science expedition to the moon in less than 1 month’s time from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

The twin Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) spacecraft have been exhaustively tested, fueled for flight and mounted side-by-side on a specially designed payload adapter inside the controlled environment of a clean room at the Astrotech Space Operations facility in nearby Titusville, Fla.

The next processing step is to encapsulate the lunar probes inside their protective payload fairing. The duo are set to be shipped from Astrotech to their Cape Canaveral launch pad next week on Aug. 16, where they will be mated to an already assembled Delta II booster.

Liftoff of the GRAIL twins is slated for Sept. 8 at 8:37 a.m. EDT by a Delta II Heavy rocket from Launch Complex 17 at Cape Canaveral for a nearly four month voyage to the moon.

After entering lunar orbit, the two GRAIL spacecraft will fly in a tandam formation just 50 kilometers above the lunar surface with an average separation of 200 km during the 90 day science phase.

Side view of twin GRAIL probes
The GRAIL spacecraft are mounted to a 3 inch high Launch Vehicle Adapter Assembly and 20 inch Payload Adapter spacer ring on top of a 30-inch high GSE stand. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

GRAIL’s mission goal is to map the moon’s gravity field to high precision and thereby deduce the structure of the lunar interior from crust to core. This will also lead to a better understanding of the composition of the moon’s interior, according to Sami Asmar, GRAIL co-investigator from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasasdena, Calif., during an interview inside the Astrotech clean room at a photo opportunity for the media. A gravity experiment is also aboard the just launched Jupiter bound Juno spacecraft.

GRAIL Photo Album special taken from inside the Astrotech cleanroom facility.

Twin GRAIL lunar probes inside clean room at Astrotech. Credit: Ken Kremer
Close up of twin lunar probes, GRAIL- B (left) & GRAIL- A (right). Credit: Ken Kremer
GRAIL-B solar panels. Credit: Ken Kremer
GRAIL Science and Launch team inside clean room at Astrotech. Credit: Ken Kremer
GRAIL Co-Investigator Sami Asmar (left) from JPL and Ken Kremer discuss science objectives inside clean room at Astrotech.