NASA launches new mission to explore the moon

June 19, 2009

(ChattahBox) — NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) were successfully launched yesterday atop an Atlas V rocket for a trip to the moon. The liftoff occurred just about a month shy of the 40th anniversary of the first lunar footprints.

The $504 million LRO will will circle the lunar poles and, via its seven science instruments, provide a high-precision, three-dimensional map of the lunar surface. The 4,200-pound solar-powered spacecraft will also measure the solar and cosmic radiation that future lunar explorers will face and test the mineralogy and chemical composition of Earth’s nearest neighbor. One year will be spent in a low polar orbit approximately 50 kilometers (31 miles)” above the lunar surface, scouting future landing sites followed by three years of purely scientific observations.

The $79 million LCROSS, meanwhile, is still attached to the Atlas V’s Centaur rocket upper stage, which it will guide in an elongated Earth orbit towards an eventual impact with the Moon’s surface near the south pole. The 5,000-pound Centaur will hit the dark surface at some 5,600 mph, and will blast out 350 tons of pulverized rock and soil for chemical analysis, digging a shallow 66-foot-wide crater in a kamikaze crash visible from Earth. LCROSS, following close behind the Centaur, will fly through the debris cloud, spending four precious minutes studying the composition of the material and looking for signs of water ice with a suite of nine instruments.

After dutifully transmitting its data back to Earth it, too, will crash to the moon less than 2 miles away from the Centaur impact. The Hubble Space Telescope will monitor the impact. NASA is planning another manned trip to the moon in 2020, about 50 years after the pioneering Apollo missions. The agency plans to keep its crews on the moon far longer than the Apollo voyages and also travel beyond the equatorial zone where all six of the Apollo moon landings occurred.

Photo: United Launch Alliance

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