Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Second Grail Spacecraft Achieves Lunar Orbit


NASA is reporting that the second GRAIL spacecraft has executed its planned main engine burn and has now joined its companion craft in lunar orbit. Working together, NASA’s two Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) probes will allow researchers to utilize new ways of studying the moon.

Designed to work in tandem, the GRAIL craft transmit radio signals that precisely measure the distance between them. As they pass over areas of greater or reduced gravity from features such as mountains, craters, and subsurface masses, the distance between the twin spacecraft changes. Scientists will use this data to develop a high-resolution map of the lunar surface, helping o shed light on how Earth and other rocky neighbors in the inner solar system evolved into the diverse worlds they are now.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said:

"NASA greets the new year with a new mission of exploration," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "The twin GRAIL spacecraft will vastly expand our knowledge of our moon and the evolution of our own planet. We begin this year reminding people around the world that NASA does big, bold things in order to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown."

GRAIL-B achieved lunar orbit at 2:43 p.m. PST (5:43 p.m. EST) today. GRAIL-A successfully completed its burn yesterday at 2 p.m. PST (5 p.m. EST). The insertion maneuvers placed the spacecraft into a near-polar, elliptical orbit with an orbital period of approximately 11.5 hours. Over the coming weeks, the GRAIL team will execute a series of burns with each spacecraft to reduce their orbital period to just under two hours. At the start of the science phase in March 2012, the two GRAILs will be in a near-polar, near-circular orbit with an altitude of about 34 miles (55 kilometers).

According to information on the NASA website:

Each spacecraft carries a small camera called GRAIL MoonKAM (Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students) with the sole purpose of education and public outreach. The MoonKAM program is led by Sally Ride, America's first woman in space, and her team at Sally Ride Science in collaboration with undergraduate students at the University of California in San Diego.

GRAIL MoonKAM will engage middle schools across the country in the GRAIL mission and lunar exploration. Thousands of fifth- to eighth-grade students will select target areas on the lunar surface and send requests to the GRAIL MoonKAM Mission Operations Center in San Diego. Photos of the target areas will be sent back by the GRAIL satellites for students to study.

A student contest that began in October 2011 also will choose new names for the spacecraft. The new names are scheduled to be announced in January 2012. Ride and Maria Zuber, the mission's principal investigator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, chaired the final round of judging.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., manages the GRAIL mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The GRAIL mission is part of the Discovery Program managed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

For more information about GRAIL visit: http://www.nasa.gov/grail

Information about MoonKAM is available online at: http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/grail/education.cfm


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