That Was the Year That Was: Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Marks 365 Days Exploring the Moon
A year ago today, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter — that’s “LRO” to the spacecraft’s many close personal friends — reached the moon. It’s been an eventful and successful mission. LRO, let me be the first to say, “You Rock!”
Speaking of rocks, LRO has seen rocks a’plenty. Not to mention lunar rilles, a Russian rover, and the coldest place in the solar system ever measured. For more details and blogolicious weblinks, see the roundup of LRO discoveries and observations by Goddard’s own Andy Freeberg.
Here are Gogblog’s LRO mission highlights, fun facts, sideshows, and uninvited commentary:
NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter launched June 18 2009 aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It arrived at the moon Tuesday June 23.
- Historical irony: In the 1960s, the United States was locked in a race to the moon with the Soviet Union. But today, a Russian-built RD-180 first-stage rocket engine lifts every Atlas V off the pad, including the one that took LRO to the moon. Also, a Russian team built LRO’s Lunar Exploration Neutron Detector.
Science mission: The spacecraft carries 7 instruments to survey the moon’s surface and environment and look for water. This is data that any future human explorers would benefit from — for instance, to identify safe landing sites, locate sources of water and energy, and minimize radiation exposure.
- Fun fact: An observing station at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center shoots a laser beam at LRO every day to measure the spacecraft’s distance to an accuracy of 4 inches.
On July 2, NASA released the first images of the moon from the supersharp Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, or LROC, showing a region in the lunar highlands south of Mare Nubium (Sea of Clouds).
On July 17, fake moon landing conspiracy enthusiasts suffered a devastating dose of reality when NASA released LROC images of the lunar lander sites for Apollo 11, 14, 15, 16, and 17. In the Apollo 14 image, footprints and scientific instruments left by the astronauts were visible — I mean, unless the LROC images are fakes, and pigs can fly, and the tooth fairy is real.
- Fun fact: In the LROC images, the 12-foot diameter lunar landers occupy just 9 pixels.
- Great pixels: If you want to drink up some fantastic images from LRO and the history of manned exploration of the moon, check out the Big Picture image spread that ran in January 2010 on the Boston Globe website.
On September 17, LRO science teams released early results of the mission. Included in the findings: LRO’s Diviner instrument found spots in permanently shadowed polar craters at -415 degrees Fahrenheit (-248 Celsius). That’s cold enough to store water ice or hydrogen for billions of years.
In a related development . . . On September 25, a team of scientists reported in the journal Science that data from the Indian lunar Chandrayaan-1 probe and NASA’s Deep Impact and Cassini spacecraft confirmed the presence of water molecules on the moon’s surface — especially near the poles.
A second mission, the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), had piggybacked to the moon on LRO’s Atlas V. (Its instruments rode to space in a ring-shaped package stuck between the top of the Atlas V’s “Centaur” second stage and the bottom of the LRO payload.)
The scientists crashed the spent Centaur into the moon’s surface on October 9 and used LCROSS’s instruments to search the debris plume for water. On November 13, the LCROSS science team announced they found it. “I am here today to tell you that, indeed, yes we found water,” said Anthony Colaprete, lead scientist for LCROSS. “And we didn’t find just a little bit; we found a significant amount.”
OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center.