iOS app Android app More

NASA Grail Probes Begin Mapping Moon

Nasa Grail

By ALICIA CHANG   01/ 2/12 03:58 AM ET   AP

LOS ANGELES -- The cruise to the moon took 3 1/2 months and covered 2 1/2 million miles – far longer than the direct three-day flight by Apollo astronauts.

Over the New Year's weekend, a pair of NASA spacecraft arrived back-to-back at their destination in the first mission devoted to studying lunar gravity.

Mission controllers at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory did not toast champagne – there's a no alcohol policy on campus – but several belatedly heralded the new year by with noisemakers.

"We can start celebrating the new year now," project manager David Lehman said Sunday after attending a post-mission fete where cake and sparkling cider were served.

The tricky arrivals occurred 24 hours apart. The drama unfolded on New Year's Eve when Grail-A flew over the south pole, fired its engine and dropped into lunar orbit. Its twin Grail-B repeated the maneuvers on New Year's Day.

Cheers and applause filled mission control when each probe signaled it was healthy and circling the moon.

"Everything worked much better than I hoped," Lehman said.

The moon has long been an object of fascination. Galileo spotted mountains and craters when he peered at it through a telescope. Poets and songwriters looked to the moon as a muse.

Since the late 1950s, more than 100 missions launched by the United States, Soviet Union, Japan, China and India have targeted Earth's companion. NASA flew six Apollo missions that landed twelve men on the lunar surface and brought back more than 800 pounds of rock and soil samples.

Despite all the visits, the moon remains mysterious. Mission chief scientist Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said researchers know more about Mars, which is farther away from the Earth, than the moon.

One of the enduring puzzles is its lopsided shape with the far side more hilly than the side that always faces Earth. Research published earlier this year suggested that our planet once had two moons that crashed early in the solar system's history and created the moon that hangs in the sky today.

Scientists expect to learn more about how the celestial body formed using Grail's gravity measurements that will indicate what's below the surface.

Since the washing machine-size Grail probes – short for Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory – were squeezed on a small rocket to save on costs, it lengthened the trip and took them 30 times longer to reach the moon than the Apollo astronauts.

Previous spacecraft have attempted to study the moon's gravity – about one-sixth Earth's pull – with mixed success. Grail was expected to give scientists the most detailed maps of the moon's uneven gravitational field and insight into its interior down to the core.

Data collection won't begin until March after the near-identical spacecraft refine their positions and are circling just 34 miles above the surface. While scientists focus on gravity, middle school students will get the chance to take their own pictures of the moon using cameras aboard the probes as part of a project headed by Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.

There's already chatter about trying to extend the $496 million mission, which was slated to end before the partial lunar eclipse in June. Scientists initially did not think the solar-powered probes would survive that long, but changed their minds during the long cruise to the moon after getting new data.

Researchers expect Grail to return a plethora of data, but that information won't be a guide to manned lunar trips anytime soon. The Obama administration last year scrapped a plan to return astronauts to the lunar surface in favor of landing on an asteroid as a stepping stone to Mars.

___

Online:

___

Related on HuffPost:

Check out the slideshow for NASA's biggest discovery of the year.
Loading Slideshow...
  • Entire Sun Imaged

    In February, <a href="http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/stereo/main/index.html" target="_hplink">NASA's STEREO probes</a>, two observatories that were launched in 2006 to survey the sun, reached opposite ends of the sun and thus, were able to give scientists (and the rest of us!) a never-before-seen view of the far side of the star at the center of our universe. The composite image above was captured on June 1, 2011, <a href="http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/stereo/news/farside-060111.html" target="_hplink">and according to NASA</a>, "is the first complete image of the solar far side, the half of the sun invisible from Earth." <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/07/nasa-stereo-sun-images-video_n_819510.html" target="_hplink">Click here for more</a> on the STEREO probes.

  • Messenger Reaches Mercury

    While it's not a "discovery," <em>per se</em>, it's a milestone that will no doubt lead to many new findings about the smallest and innermost planet in our solar system. In March, after a 6 1/2-year, 4.9 billion mile journey, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/18/nasa-messenger-mercury_n_837503.html" target="_hplink">NASA's Messenger spacecraft reached Mercury's orbit</a>. Messenger, the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury, <a href="http://messenger.jhuapl.edu/mer_orbit.html" target="_hplink">orbits the planet</a> every 12 hours. In November, <a href="http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/messenger/media/MissionExtends.html" target="_hplink">NASA announced that the spacecraft's mission</a>, which was supposed to end on March 17, 2012, would be extended for an additional year.

  • Pluto's Tiny Moon

    In July, NASA said that its Hubble Space Telescope <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/20/new-pluto-moon-hubble-space-telescope_n_904578.html" target="_hplink">discovered an eight to 21-mile-wide moon</a> circling the dwarf planet.

  • Black Hole Eats A Star

    In March, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/07/nasa-cosmic-blast_n_846333.html" target="_hplink">NASA's Swift satellite saw an unusually long explosion of gamma-rays</a>. After studying the X-rays, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/25/black-hole-eats-star-video_n_937150.html" target="_hplink">scientists found that they came from</a> a black hole that had become reenergized when it devoured a star. <a href="http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2011/aug/HQ_11-271_Swift_Black_Hole.html" target="_hplink">From NASA</a>: <blockquote>Astronomers soon realized the source, known as Swift J1644+57, was the result of a truly extraordinary event -- the awakening of a distant galaxy's dormant black hole as it shredded and consumed a star. The galaxy is so far away, it took the light from the event approximately 3.9 billion years to reach Earth. </blockquote>

  • Huge Mountain Discovered On Asteroid

    <a href="http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/dawn/main/index.html" target="_hplink">NASA's Dawn</a>, an ion-propelled spacecraft that traveled 1.7 billion miles before reaching the asteroid Vesta in July, sent back images in October revealing that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/05/vesta-mountain-dawn-nasa_n_996282.html" target="_hplink">Vesta is home to a mountain larger than any mountain</a> on Earth. In December, NASA released new images that Dawn took when it was orbiting only 130 miles above the asteroid, the closest it will get to Vesta. Dawn will continue to image Vesta until next summer, when it will make its way to Ceres, a bigger asteroid.

  • 'Star Wars'-Like Planet

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/15/kepler-16b-planet-two-suns_n_964799.html" target="_hplink">NASA's Kepler spacecraft found a planet</a> that orbits two suns, driving fans of the "Star Wars" franchise <a href="http://blog.moviefone.com/2011/09/16/astronomers-discover-real-life-tatooine-star-wars/" target="_hplink">to call it a real-life Tatooine</a>. Astronomers announced Kepler-16b, which is the first circumbinary planet -- meaning it orbits two stars -- in September. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/15/kepler-16b-planet-two-suns_n_964799.html" target="_hplink">Click here for more</a> on Kepler-16b.

  • 'Habitable Zone' Planet Found

    Scientists in early December <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/05/kepler-22b-new-planet-discovered-habitable-zone_n_1129591.html" target="_hplink">announced the discovery of Kepler-22b</a>, a planet with a temperature of around 72 degrees that's in the so-called <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Habitable_zone" target="_hplink">"Goldilocks," or habitable zone</a>. While the temperature of the 600-light-year away planet could sustain water, it has a radius of 2.4 times that of Earth's, so <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20111206/us-sci-alien-planet/" target="_hplink">it's probably too big</a> to harbor life.

  • Biggest Black Holes Ever Discovered

    Astronomers announced in early December that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/05/black-hole-scientists-discover-huge_n_1129727.html" target="_hplink">they had found the biggest black holes to date</a>. The massive black holes, which are 10 billion times the size of the sun, are located over 300 million light years away.

  • Europa's 'Great Lakes'

    Scientists had long-thought that a large body of water existed under the surface of Europa, Jupiter's moon, but it was thought to be tens of miles below an icy crust. In November, though, astronomers analyzing data from <a href="http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/galileo/" target="_hplink">NASA's Galileo spacecraft</a> found evidence that suggests blocks of ice interact with water below the surface, which could mean that nutrients and energy are moving between the underground ocean and icy shell. <a href="http://www.ig.utexas.edu/people/staff/britneys/" target="_hplink">Britney Schmidt</a>, the lead author of the study, <a href="http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v479/n7374/full/nature10608.html" target="_hplink">which appeared in the journal Nature</a>, said that the interaction "could make Europa and its ocean more habitable for life." <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/17/europa-water-jupiter-moon-photo-video_n_1099463.html#s480278&title=Europa" target="_hplink">Click here to read more</a> about water on Europa.

  • 'Bubbles' At The Edge Of Solar System

    NASA's Voyager probes -- launched over 30 years ago -- found huge magnetic "bubbles" at the edge of the solar system. "The sun's magnetic field extends all the way to the edge of the solar system," astronomer Merav Opher of Boston University <a href="http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/voyager/heliosphere-surprise.html" target="_hplink">said in a NASA statement</a>. "Because the sun spins, its magnetic field becomes twisted and wrinkled, a bit like a ballerina's skirt. Far, far away from the sun, where the Voyagers are, the folds of the skirt bunch up." Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched in 1977. Voyager 1 is currently 11 billion miles away and may exit our solar system within the next few years.

  • Gypsum On Mars

    In December, scientists announced that NASA's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/08/mars-water-opportunity-rover-gypsum_n_1136483.html" target="_hplink">Mars Rover Opportunity may have found gypsum </a>that had been deposited by water. "This tells a slam-dunk story that water flowed through underground fractures in the rock," <a href="http://astro.cornell.edu/people/facstaff-detail.php?pers_id=112" target="_hplink">Steve Squyres</a>, a planetary scientist at Cornell University and the principal investigator for Opportunity <a href="http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/mer/news/mer20111207.html" target="_hplink">said in a NASA statement</a>. NASA's Curiosity Rover <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/26/nasa-mars-curiosity-launc_n_1113995.html" target="_hplink">is en route to the Red Planet</a> and will arrive in August 2012.

  • Earth-Size Planets Discovered

    Weeks after <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/05/kepler-22b-new-planet-discovered-habitable-zone_n_1129591.html" target="_hplink">the announcement of Kepler-22b</a>, scientists said that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/20/new-planets-kepler-exoplanets_n_1161213.html" target="_hplink">they'd discovered Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f</a>, two planets that are about the size of Earth. While the planets are too close to their sun-like star to harbor life as we know it, the discovery proved that the Kepler spacecraft was capable of spotting planets that are Earth-size, and brings us one step closer to finding a true Earth twin. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/20/new-planets-kepler-exoplanets_n_1161213.html" target="_hplink">Click here for more</a> on the new planets.

  • Charles Camarda: NASA Innovation

FOLLOW HUFFPOST TECH

Filed by Catharine Smith  |