While many of you were partaking in New Year’s celebrations, engineers and other specialists at NASA were also celebrating; albeit, something a bit different.
NASA launched the twin GRAIL-A/GRAIL-B spacecrafts from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on September 10, 2011, on a nearly 4-month journey to the Moon. 1(footnote below) On December 31 and January 1, GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B — respectively — completed their journey into lunar orbit.
At this point in the mission, the mirror-twin GRAIL spacecraft are maneuvering themselves into a flying formation that will place them on a near-polar orbit, 34 miles (55 km) above the Moon’s surface. While the craft are currently completing an orbit approximately every 11.5 hours, over the coming weeks controlled burns will reduce that time to just under 2 hours.
From there, the science begins. In March, GRAIL begins its task of creating a comprehensive and detailed map of the Moon’s gravitational field. This will provide tremendous insights into the internal structure of our natural satellite, from core to crust. It will also reveal the history of the Moon’s episodes of heating and cooling. Understanding this thermal evolution takes us a step closer to fully understanding the Moon’s origin and the processes it undertook over the past 5 billion years, to make it what it is today. This new knowledge will extend our understanding not only of the Moon, but the other rocky inner solar system planets as well.
For the kids; our future.
Both spacecraft contain a camera called GRAIL MoonKAM (Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students). MoonKAM is installed solely for education and public outreach, being led by Sally Ride (the first American woman in space, but of course you knew that) and her Sally Ride Science team. GRAIL MoonKAM is designed to engage middle school-aged students from across the nation. Students will be able to target areas on the surface of the Moon, submit their requests to GRAIL MoonKAM, and then receive photos of the target area to be studied in the classroom.
In addition to GRAIL MoonKAM, beginning in October of last year students were also able to enter a contest to choose new names for the spacecraft. So if the names, GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B aren’t particularly exciting to you, the new names are expected to be revealed later this month.
I’m excited to see what GRAIL reveals about our nearest interplanetary neighbor. The Moon still harbors a number of puzzling mysteries, and there’s a good chance that GRAIL might shed some light onto their answers. GRAIL is a comparatively short mission, expected to conclude around early June of this year; so, our new data and understanding will be coming to us soon. After decommissioning is finished, the GRAIL orbiters will be smashed into the Moon’s surface, in true NASA fashion.
To read more about GRAIL, check out the following links:
GRAIL press kit (.pdf)
- When NASA is sending people to the Moon, we do it in 3 days. It is safer for our astronauts and easier to plan for, but it comes at a month greater fuel cost. With spacecraft such as GRAIL, we can save a few bucks and take our time. ↩