Two new Moons join the Moon – GRAIL Twins Achieve New Year’s Orbits

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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.

Following closely on the heels of her twin sister, NASA’s GRAIL-B spacecraft ignited her main braking rockets precisely as planned on New Year’s Day (Jan.1) to go into a formation flying orbit around the Moon, chasing behind GRAIL-A which arrived on New Year’s Eve (Dec. 31).

“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.

GRAIL-B spacecraft entered Lunar Orbit on New Year’s Day 2012. Artist concept of GRAIL-B performing its lunar orbit insertion burn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The new lunar arrivals of GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B capped a perfect year for NASA’s Planetary Science research in 2011.

“2011 began the Year of the Solar System – which is a Mars year (~670 Earth days long)… and includes Grail B insertion, Dawn leaving Vesta this summer … And the landing of MSL! ,” Green said.

NASA’s GRAIL-A & GRAIL-B are orbiting the Moon in this image taken on Jan. 2, 2012 after Lunar Orbit Insertions on New Year’s Weekend. Click to enlarge.
Credit: Ken Kremer

“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 !”

Artist's concept depicts how the science instrument on the mirror image twin GRAIL spacecraft will send signals to each other to map the Moon's gravity and then transmit the data to Earth. Credit: NASA

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 !

GRAIL Project manager David Lehman cuts the cake for team members at JPL to celebrate 2 for 2 at the Moon. Credit: NASA/Jim Green
GRAIL team at JPL toasts success as twin spacecraft both went into orbit around the Moon on New Year’s weekend.

Read continuing features about GRAIL by Ken Kremer here:
First GRAIL Twin Enters Lunar Orbit – NASA’s New Year’s Gift to Science
2011: Top Stories from the Best Year Ever for NASA Planetary Science!
NASA’s Unprecedented Science Twins are GO to Orbit our Moon on New Year’s Eve
Student Alert: GRAIL Naming Contest – Essay Deadline November 11
GRAIL Lunar Blastoff Gallery
GRAIL Twins Awesome Launch Videos – A Journey to the Center of the Moon
NASA launches Twin Lunar Probes to Unravel Moons Core
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

Student Alert: GRAIL Naming Contest – Essay Deadline November 11

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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:

Read all the Official Contest Rules here:

Download the Naming Contest Submission Form here:

Students: NASA Wants You to Name that GRAIL !
Write an Essay and name these twin Lunar mapping satellites. NASA’s twin GRAIL A & B science probes are now streaking to the Moon and arrive on New Year’s Day 2012. This picture shows how they looked, mounted side by side, during launch preparations prior to blasting off for the Moon on Sept. 10, 2011 from Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

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.

Blastoff of twin GRAIL A and B lunar gravity mapping spacecraft on a Delta II Heavy rocket on Sept. 10 from Pad 17B Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 9:08 a.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer

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 !

Read Ken’s continuing features about GRAIL
GRAIL Lunar Blastoff Gallery
GRAIL Twins Awesome Launch Videos – A Journey to the Center of the Moon
NASA launches Twin Lunar Probes to Unravel Moons Core
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

GRAIL Lunar Blastoff Gallery

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Check out our gallery of more thrilling launch photos of NASA’s twin GRAIL spacecraft departing Earth on Saturday, Sept. 10 at 9:08 a.m. EDT from Pad 17B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Although GRAIL’s liftoff was delayed a few days by excessively high upper level winds, it was well worth the wait and put on a spectacular show as the booster thundered away from Space Launch Complex 17. This Delta II rocket was almost certainly the last ever Delta to blastf off from the Florida Space Coast.

Blastoff of Delta II Heavy rocket and twin spacecraft on Sept. 10 from Pad 17B at Cape Canaveral at 9:08 a.m. EDT. View from Press Site 1. Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com)

The GRAIL spacecraft continue to function well at the start of their nearly four month journey to the Moon wher they will map the moon gravity in unprecedented detail and provide new insight into the formation and evolution of the rocky bodies of the inner Solar System.

Sept. 10 Blastoff of Delta II and GRAIL gravity mappers. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Sept. 10 Blastoff of Delta II and GRAIL gravity mappers. Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com)
Sept. 10 Blastoff of Delta II and GRAIL gravity mappers. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Sept. 10 Blastoff of Delta II and NASA’s GRAIL spacecraft. Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com)
Sept. 10 Blastoff of Delta II and GRAIL gravity mappers. Credit: Ken Kremer
Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com)
Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com)
Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com)
Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com)
Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com)
GRAIL and Delta II rocket soar to space on Sept 10 from Pad 17B at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

NASA GRAIL Launch Images

Read Ken’s continuing features about GRAIL
GRAIL Twins Awesome Launch Videos – A Journey to the Center of the Moon
NASA launches Twin Lunar Probes to Unravel Moons Core
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