November 23, 2014

LRO/LCROSS: Back to the Moon.

Launch of LRO/LCROSS! (Credit:Ben Cooper).

Launch of LRO/LCROSS! (Credit:Ben Cooper).

A quiet storm began last month at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. On June 18th, 2009, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) lifted off towards our nearest neighbor, the Moon. This marks the first of NASA’s unmanned missions that will herald the eventual return of man to the Moon. As this month also marks the 40th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 landing, this return couldn’t be more timely. LRO marks NASA’s first mission to the Moon in several years. Equipped with high definition cameras, LRO will map proposed landing sites and study the characteristics of the lunar environment for eventual long duration manned missions. Despite rumblings in the NASA hierarchy, that time-line is still tentatively set for 2019. And don’t forget, the first unmanned test of the Ares X-1, part of the assemblage that will get us there,  is still slated for later this year!

But wait, there’s more; this mission is a definite two-fer! The Atlas V booster that put the LRO into lunar orbit also contains an instrument payload of its own; LCROSS, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, will be on hand to watch as the one ton plus upper stage Centaur motor slams into an as yet unselected lunar polar crater. The quarry: water ice, which has been long hypothesized to exist at the permanently shadowed poles. A very tentative impact date is set for October 9th of this year, at or around 11:30 UT. The Moon will be at a waning gibbous phase, and viewing will thus favor the Americas. This will be worth watching for; scopes as small as 6-inches aperture may have a stab at witnessing the event!

Lunar phase and illumination during LCROSS impact.

Lunar phase and illumination during LCROSS impact. (Credit: Stellarium).

And the LRO has already begun streaming back photos to Earth. Not the least of these will be pics of the original Apollo landing sites, not that this fact will ever dissuade any Moon hoax “true believers”… (they placed that hardware there, man…) LRO and LCROSS may be one of the first interplanetary spacecraft that can be followed on Twitter; of course I don’t doubt that someone back at JPL is indeed “Tweeting” on their behalf…just how is it that the LRO and LCROSS spacecraft are also shown as “following” someone? Presumably, they follow each other on Twitter, but is the first sign of true machine sentience? Scary…

Not to be outdone, backyard astronomers are already even photographing LCROSS, as it loops back towards its eventual target!

An animation of LCROSS in orbit! (Credit: Paul Mortfield).

An animation of LCROSS in orbit! (Credit: Paul Mortfield).

So, what array of techie goodies is LRO/LCROSS carrying? Here’s a blow-by-blow break down;

Sensors aboard the LRO:

LOLA: The Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter, which will provide precise topographic modeling of the lunar spheroid.

LEND: The Lunar Exploration Neutron Detector will search specifically for ice deposits. Lunar Prospector had an early variant of this device.

LAMP: The Lyman-Alpha Mapping Project will look into permanently darkened craters via ultra-violet light.

DLRE: The Diviner Lunar Radiometer will gauge temperatures in the lunar environment.

CRaTER: This is the Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation. Its main task is to gauge just how much radiation astronauts can expect to be exposed to on long term lunar missions.

The LROC: probably the most familiar piece of hardware, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Cameras come in both the wide and narrow field variety and will work in concert with a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR). Together these instruments will have the potential to map the lunar surface in unprecedented high resolution. The parking orbit of the LRO is about 50 km altitude, with the ability to resolve features only meters across.

…And don’t forget the 1.6 million names that were submitted to the Moon last year, that are now cruising on a microchip in a radiation hardened canister aboard the LRO, not the least of which is Astroguyz…

Not to be outdone, LCROSS carries its array of visible and infrared cameras and spectrometers to catch the centaur motor impact. LCROSS itself will then fly through the expected 6 mile high debris cloud with its battery of sensors for an impact itself about four minutes later. Data collected will be matched with the Clementine and the aforementioned Lunar Prospector spacecraft, both of which strongly hinted at the water ice hypothesis and “stirred up” (pun intended) some controversy of their own.

So follow the sites, join the Twitter feeds… new pics are streaming in everyday! Now is a good time to get excited about finally returning to our nearest neighbor in space, hopefully, this time for good!

LRO in cruise mode: an Artist's Impression. (Credit: NASA/JPL).

LRO in cruise mode: an Artist's Impression. (Credit: NASA/JPL).

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