While the surface of the Moon has been mapped in incredible detail over the last several decades, one region has eluded orbital cameras due to the lack of sunlight, which are aptly called the permanently shadowed regions (PSRs) of the Moon. However, two cameras operating on two different lunar orbiters have recently worked in tandem to produce a stunning mosaic image of the lunar south pole’s Shackleton Crater, a portion of which resides directly on the lunar south pole and whose depths have been shrouded in complete darkness for possibly the last few billion years. As a result, scientists hypothesize that water ice could have accumulated within its dark depths that future astronauts could use for fuel and life support.Continue reading “The Darkest Parts of the Moon are Revealed with NASA’s New Camera”
New images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) appear to show the crash site where the Japanese Hakuto-R Mission 1 lunar lander impacted the surface of the Moon a month ago.
The refrigerator-sized HAKUTO-R was built by the startup company iSpace and was launched in December 2022 with the goal of becoming the first commercial lunar lander to touch down safely on the Moon. However, during landing operations on April 25, 2023, communications ceased just moments before touchdown should have occurred, and the lander was presumed lost.Continue reading “NASA May Have Found Hakuto-R’s Crash Site”
Shackleton Crater at the lunar south pole is one of the locations on NASA’s shortlist for human exploration with the future Artemis missions. But because craters at the lunar poles — like Shackleton — at have areas that are perpetually in shadow, known as permanently shadowed regions (PSRs), we don’t know for sure what lies inside the interior. However, a new spacecraft with a specialized instrument is about to change all that.Continue reading “New Spacecraft Can See Into the Permanently Shadowed Craters on the Moon”
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) – NASA’s eye-in-the-sky in orbit around the Moon – has found the crash site of the mystery rocket booster that slammed into the far side of the Moon back on March 4th, 2022. The LRO images, taken May 25th, revealed not just a single crater, but a double crater formed by the rocket’s impact, posing a new mystery for astronomers to unravel.Continue reading “Remember That Rocket That was Going to Crash Into the Moon? Scientists Think They've Found the Crater”
Since 2009, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has been taking high-resolution pictures of the lunar surface. This data, along with the information from a laser altimeter mapping instrument has allowed scientists to create an incredibly detailed map of the Moon. NASA says they can now confidently pinpoint any feature on the Moon, including the exact location of its South Pole.Continue reading “Here’s The Exact Point of the Moon’s South Pole”
Cameras can be finicky – especially ones primarily used for astronomy. When used for a purpose other than their intended one, sometimes they result in horribly muddled or blurry images. However, sometimes an image works out just right and provides a whole new perspective on a familiar scene. That’s what happened recently when the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) turned one of its cameras toward one of astronomy’s favorite places – Saturn.Continue reading “A Spacecraft Orbiting the Moon Just Captured an Image of Saturn”
You know the feeling …. seeing Jupiter through your own telescope. If it gives you the chills — like it does for me — then you’ll know how the team for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter felt when they turned their spacecraft around – yes, the orbiter that’s been faithfully circling and looking down at the Moon since 2008 – and saw the giant planet Jupiter with their camera. If you zoom in on the picture, you can even see Jupiter’s Galilean moons.Continue reading “NASA Spacecraft Takes a Picture of Jupiter … From the Moon”
Eleven years into its mission, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is starting to show its age, but a recent software update promises to give the spacecraft a new lease on life. As NASA’s eye in the sky over the Moon, the LRO has been responsible for some of the best Lunar observations since the days of Apollo. This new upgrade will allow that legacy to continue.Continue reading “Lunar Spacecraft Gets an Upgrade to Capture New Perspectives of the Moon”
On October 13th, 2014, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) experienced something rare and unexpected. While monitoring the surface of the Moon, the LRO’s main instrument – the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) – produced an image that was rather unusual. Whereas most of the images it has produced were detailed and exact, this one was subject to all kinds of distortion.
From the way this image was disturbed, the LRO science team theorized that the camera must have experienced a sudden and violent movement. In short, they concluded that it had been struck by a tiny meteoroid, which proved to a significant find in itself. Luckily, the LRO and its camera appear to have survived the impact unharmed and will continue to survey the surface of the Moon for years to come.
The LROC is a system of three cameras that are mounted aboard the LRO spacecraft. This include two Narrow Angle Cameras (NACs) – which capture high-resolution black and white images – and a third Wide Angle Camera (WAC), which captures moderate resolution images that provide information about the properties and color of the lunar surface.
The NACs works by building an image one line at a time, with thousands of lines being used to compile a full image. In between the capture process, the spacecraft moves the camera relative to the surface. On October 13th, 2014, at precisely 21:18:48 UTC, the camera added a line that was visibly distorted. This sent the LRO team on a mission to investigate what could have caused it.
Led by Mark Robinson – a professor and the principal investigator of the LROC at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration – the LROC researchers concluded that the left Narrow Angle Camera must have experienced a brief and violent movement. As there were no spacecraft events – like a solar panel movement or antenna tracking – that might have caused this, the only possibility appeared to be a collision.
As Robinson explained in a recent post on the LROC’s website:
“There were no spacecraft events (such as slews, solar panel movements, antenna tracking, etc.) that might have caused spacecraft jitter during this period, and even if there had been, the resulting jitter should have affected both cameras identically… Clearly there was a brief violent movement of the left NAC. The only logical explanation is that the NAC was hit by a meteoroid! How big was the meteoroid, and where did it hit?”
To test this, the team used a detailed computer model that was developed specifically for the LROC to ensure that the NAC would not fail during the launch of the spacecraft, when severe vibrations would occur. With this model, the LROC team ran simulations to see if they could reproduce the distortions that would have caused the image. Not only did they conclude it was the result of a collision, but they were also able to determine the size of the meteoroid that hit it.
The results indicated that the impacting meteoroid would have measured about 0.8 mm in diameter and had a density of a regular chondrite meteorite (2.7 g/cm³). What’s more, they were able to estimate that it was traveling at a velocity of about 7 km/s (4.3 miles per second) when it collided with the NAC. This was rather surprising, given the odds of collisions and how much time the LRO spends gathering data.
Typically, the LROC only captures images during daylight hours, and for about 10% of the day. So for it to have been hit while it was also capturing images is statistically unlikely – only about 5% by Robinson’s own estimate. Luckily, the impact has not caused any technical problems for the LROC, which is also something of a minor miracle. As Robinson explained:
“For comparison, the muzzle velocity of a bullet fired from a rifle is typically 0.5 to 1.0 kilometers per second. The meteoroid was traveling much faster than a speeding bullet. In this case, LROC did not dodge a speeding bullet, but rather survived a speeding bullet! LROC was struck and survived to keep exploring the Moon, thanks to Malin Space Science Systems’ robust camera design.”
It was only after the team deduced that no damage had been caused that prompted the announcement. According to John Keller, the LRO project scientist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the real story here was how the imagery that was being acquired at the time was used to deduce how and when the LRO had been struck by a meteoroid.
“Since the impact presented no technical problems for the health and safety of the instrument,” he said, “the team is only now announcing this event as a fascinating example of how engineering data can be used, in ways not previously anticipated, to understand what is happening to the spacecraft over 236,000 miles (380,000 kilometers) from the Earth.”
In addition, the impact of a meteoroid on the LRO demonstrates just how precious the information that missions like the LRO provides truly is. Beyond mapping the lunar surface, the orbiter was also able to let its science team know exactly and when its images were comprised, all because of the high-quality data it collects.
Since it launched in June of 2008, the LRO has collected an immense amount of data on the lunar surface. The mission has been extended several times, from its original duration of two years to the just under nine. Its ongoing performance is also a testament to the durability of the craft and its components.
Be sure to enjoy this video of the images obtained by the LRO, courtesy of the LROC team:
Further Reading: ASU/LROC
In an ‘Independence Day’ gift to a slew of US planetary research scientists, NASA has granted approval to nine ongoing missions to continue for another two years this holiday weekend.
The biggest news is that NASA green lighted a mission extension for the New Horizons probe to fly deeper into the Kuiper Belt and decided to keep the Dawn probe at Ceres forever, rather than dispatching it to a record breaking third main belt asteroid.
And the exciting extension news comes just as the agency’s Juno probe is about to ignite a do or die July 4 fireworks display to achieve orbit at Jupiter – detailed here.
“Mission approved!” the researchers gleefully reported on the probes Facebook and Twitter social media pages.
“Our extended mission into the #KuiperBelt has been approved. Thanks to everyone for following along & hopefully the best is yet to come.
The New Horizons spacecraft will now continue on course in the Kuiper Belt towards an small object known as 2014 MU69, to carry out the most distant close encounter with a celestial object in human history.
“Here’s to continued success!”
The spacecraft will rendezvous with the ancient rock on New Year’s Day 2019.
Researchers say that 2014 MU69 is considered as one of the early building blocks of the solar system and as such will be invaluable to scientists studying the origin of our solar system how it evolved.
It was almost exactly one year ago on July 14, 2015 that New Horizons conducted Earth’s first ever up close flyby and science reconnaissance of Pluto – the most distant planet in our solar system and the last of the nine planets to be explored.
The immense volume of data gathered continues to stream back to Earth every day.
“The New Horizons mission to Pluto exceeded our expectations and even today the data from the spacecraft continue to surprise,” said NASA’s Director of Planetary Science Jim Green at NASA HQ in Washington, D.C.
“We’re excited to continue onward into the dark depths of the outer solar system to a science target that wasn’t even discovered when the spacecraft launched.”
While waiting for news on whether NASA would approve an extended mission, the New Horizons engineering and science team already ignited the main engine four times to carry out four course changes in October and November 2015, in order to preserve the option of the flyby past 2014 MU69 on Jan 1, 2019.
Green noted that mission extensions into fiscal years 2017 and 2018 are not final until Congress actually passes sufficient appropriation to fund NASA’s Planetary Science Division.
“Final decisions on mission extensions are contingent on the outcome of the annual budget process.”
Tough choices were made even tougher because the Obama Administration has cut funding for the Planetary Sciences Division – some of which was restored by a bipartisan majority in Congress for what many consider NASA’s ‘crown jewels.’
NASA’s Dawn asteroid orbiter just completed its primary mission at dwarf planet Ceres on June 30, just in time for the global celebration known as Asteroid Day.
“The mission exceeded all expectations originally set for its exploration of protoplanet Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres,” said NASA officials.
The Dawn science team had recently submitted a proposal to break out of orbit around the middle of this month in order to this conduct a flyby of the main belt asteroid Adeona.
Green declined to approve the Dawn proposal, citing additional valuable science to be gathered at Ceres.
The long-term monitoring of Ceres, particularly as it gets closer to perihelion – the part of its orbit with the shortest distance to the sun — has the potential to provide more significant science discoveries than a flyby of Adeona,” he said.
The funding required for a multi-year mission to Adeona would be difficult in these cost constrained times.
However the spacecraft is in excellent shape and the trio of science instruments are in excellent health.
Dawn arrived at Ceres on March 6, 2015 and has been conducting unprecedented investigation ever since.
Dawn is Earth’s first probe in human history to explore any dwarf planet, the first to explore Ceres up close and the first to orbit two celestial bodies.
The asteroid Vesta was Dawn’s first orbital target where it conducted extensive observations of the bizarre world for over a year in 2011 and 2012.
The mission is expected to last until at least later into 2016, and possibly longer, depending upon fuel reserves.
Due to expert engineering and handling by the Dawn mission team, the probe unexpectedly has hydrazine maneuvering fuel leftover.
Dawn will remain at its current altitude at the Low Altitude Mapping Orbit (LAMO) for the rest of its mission, and indefinitely afterward, even when no further communications are possible.
Green based his decision on the mission extensions on the biannual peer review scientific assessment by the Senior Review Panel.
Dawn was launched in September 2007.
The other mission extensions – contingent on available resources – are: the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN), the Opportunity and Curiosity Mars rovers, the Mars Odyssey orbiter, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), and NASA’s support for the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.