Get ready for America's return to the Moon this week. While NASA isn't sending astronauts back to the Moon just yet, this week's launch of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fla., will pave the way for sustained human ventures around the year 2020.
LRO is the first mission in NASA's Vision for Space Exploration-a bold plan to not only return humans to the Moon, but to travel on to Mars.
The effort to go to the Moon and Mars won't be cheap, but it will expand our knowledge of the space environment, generate new technologies with down-to-Earth applications-just as Apollo and current NASA programs are doing-plus stimulate young people to pursue science and engineering careers. Vision for Space Exploration is another segment of our nation's long-term investment in pioneering the high frontier.
LRO is being launched during the 40th anniversary era of Apollo 11, the first human landing on the Moon, which makes the mission all the more timely.
LRO mission planners want to "tag" several potential landing sites-not necessarily near the Apollo sites-locate potential resources such as building materials, water ice, and natural gas deposits, monitor solar and cosmic radiation, and test some sophisticated electronic technology.
The LRO spacecraft will be a low flyer cruising only 30 miles (50 kilometers) above the Moon. For comparisons, Apollo spacecraft orbited no lower than 60 miles (96.5 kilometers) above the lunar surface. LRO's low orbit will improve data gathering and enable the onboard camera to lens high-resolution images of landing sites as well as image Apollo hardware left on the surface for this July's Apollo 11 celebrations.
LRO, if successful, will orbit the Moon for one year.
During last week's LRO mission teleconference for members of the NASA-JPL Solar System Ambassador Program, Lora Bleacher of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, which is where LRO was built and is managed, provided a thumbnail sketch of the mission.
"LRO will gather lunar data on a global scale-this includes temperature mapping, geodetic-grid mapping, high-res color and ultraviolet albedo imaging," Bleachor said. "Special emphasis will be on the Moon's polar regions where water ice may exist in the permanently shadowed regions of some craters."
A piggy backing mini-sat, called Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite or LCROSS, built by the NASA Ames Research Center, will focus on ice detection at the Moon's south pole.
As LRO orbits the Moon, LCROSS will do its own thing and eject two hefty surface impactors. The objects will then slam into the Moon and create a plume that LCROSS will "sniff". Hopefully, the sniffing will reveal water ice, hydrates, and hydrocarbons-yes, the Moon might possess a big "carbon footprint" in the form of natural gas, ethane and methane.
So why all this fuss about going back to the Moon? Isn't it just a dead slag heap in space? Why bother?
Well, NASA-and the new Obama White House-justifies a lunar return this way: "Our return to the Moon addresses fundamental questions about Earth's prehistory, the solar system and the universe and about our place in them. It will allow us to test technologies, systems, flight operations and exploration techniques to reduce the risk and increase the productivity of future missions to Mars and beyond. It will also expand Earth's economic sphere to conduct lunar activities with benefits to life on the home planet."
And if natural gas is discovered on the Moon, future drill crews could find lots of work to do up there. Just don't expect importing LNG-lunar natural gas-to Earth. But a deep supply of methane would be ideal for rocket propellant and fuel for a permanent Moon colony. Maybe future lunar colonists might like a juicy gas-grilled burger once in a while.
What's in the Sky: Enjoy a sky showcase with Mercury, Venus and Mars during the early morning hours this week. On June 20, at 5 a.m., just as dawn light breaks, look east to see the thin-crescent Moon join this planetary grouping.
Lou Varricchio, M.Sc., was a NASA senior science writer at the NASA Ames Research Center in California. He is currently involved with NASA-JPL Solar System Ambassador Program in and the U.S. Civil Air Patrol in Vermont.