Astronomy Cast Ep. 361: Modern Women: Maria Zuber

Maria Zuber with students. Credit: NASA

Maria Zuber is one of the hardest working scientists in planetary science, being a part of six different space missions to explore the Solar System. Currently, she’s the lead investigator for NASA’s GRAIL mission.

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1st Student Selected MoonKAM Pictures Look Inspiringly Home to Earth

Student-run MoonKAM Imager Looks Homeward. This image of the far side of the lunar surface, with Earth in the background, was taken by the MoonKAM system board the Ebb spacecraft as part of the first image set taken from lunar orbit from March 15 – 18, 2012. A little more than half-way up and on the left side of the image is the crater De Forest. Due to its proximity to the southern pole, DeForest receives sunlight at an oblique angle when it is on the illuminated half of the Moon. NASA/Caltech-JPL/MIT/SRS


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.

Far Side of Moon Imaged by MoonKAM
This image of the lunar surface was taken by the MoonKAM system onboard NASA’s Ebb spacecraft on March 15, 2012. The 42.3-mile-wide (68-kilometer-wide) crater in the middle of the image (with the smaller crater inside) is Poinsot. Crater Poinsot, named for the French mathematician Louis Poinsot, is located on the northern part of the moon's far side. The target was selected by 4th grade students at Emily Dickinson Elementary School in Montana who had the honor of choosing the first MoonKAM images after winning a nationwide contest. NASA/Caltech-JPL/MIT/SRS

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.

Ebb and Flow - New Names for the GRAIL Twins in Lunar Orbit
4th Grade Students from Bozeman, Montana (inset) won NASA’s contest to rename the GRAIL A and GRAIL B spacecraft and also chose the first lunar targets to be photographed by the onboard MoonKAM camera system. Artist concept of twin GRAIL spacecraft flying in tandem orbits around the Moon to measure its gravity field Credit: NASA/JPL -M ontage: Ken Kremer

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.”

MoonKAM image from NASA’s Ebb Lunar Mapping orbiter. This lunar target was selected by the 4th graders at Emily Dickinson Elementary School in Montana who won the contest to rename the GRAIL probes in a nationwide essay contest. NASA/Caltech-JPL/MIT/SRS

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.

One of the first two remote images of Earth taken from the distance of the Moon on August 23, 1966 by NASA’s Lunar Orbiter 1 spacecraft. Credit: NASA


March 24 (Sat): Free Lecture by Ken Kremer at the New Jersey Astronomical Association, Voorhees State Park, NJ at 830 PM. Topic: Atlantis, the End of Americas Shuttle Program, Orion, SpaceX, CST-100, Moon and the Future of NASA Human & Robotic Spaceflight

America’s Youth Christen NASA’s Twin New Lunar Craft – Ebb & Flow

Ebb and Flow - New Names for the GRAIL Twins in Lunar Orbit. 4th Grade Students from Montana win NASA’s contest to rename the GRAIL A and GRAIL B spacecraft. Artist concept of twin GRAIL spacecraft flying in tandem orbits around the Moon to measure its gravity field in unprecedented detail and unravel the hidden mysteries of the lunar interior’s composition. Credit: NASA/JPL Montage:Ken Kremer


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.”

Leland Melvin, NASA Associate Administrator for Education, left, Maria Zuber, GRAIL Prinicipal Investigator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and James Green, Director of the Planetary Science Division in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, right, applaud students from Emily Dickinson Elementary School in Bozeman, Mont. during a news conference, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012, at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Nine hundred classrooms and more than 11,000 students from 45 states, as well as Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, participated in a contest that began in October 2011 to name the twin lunar probes. Credit: NASA/Paul E. Alers

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.

Ebb & Flow Achieve Lunar Orbit on New Year’s Weekend 2012
NASA’s twin GRAIL-A & GRAIL-B spacecraft are orbiting the Moon in this astrophoto taken on Jan. 2, 2012 shortly after successful Lunar Orbit Insertions on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day 2012.
Credit: Ken Kremer

Read continuing features about GRAIL and the Moon by Ken Kremer here:
Dazzling Photos of the International Space Station Crossing the Moon!
Two new Moons join the Moon – GRAIL Twins Achieve New Year’s Orbits
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