GREENBELT, Md. — NASA reported Thursday that its Lunar Reconnaissance
Orbiter, or LRO, has successfully completed its testing and
calibration phase and entered its mapping orbit of the moon. The
spacecraft already has made significant progress toward creating the
most detailed atlas of the moon’s south pole to date. Scientists
released preliminary images and data from LRO’s seven instruments.
“The LRO mission already has begun to give us new data that will lead
to a vastly improved atlas of the lunar south pole and advance our
capability for human exploration and scientific benefit,” said
Richard Vondrak, LRO project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight
Center in Greenbelt, Md.
LRO is scheduled for a one-year exploration mission in a polar orbit
of about 31 miles above the lunar surface, the closest any spacecraft
has orbited the moon. During the next year, LRO will produce a
complete map of the lunar surface in unprecedented detail, search for
resources and safe landing sites for human explorers, and measure
lunar temperatures and radiation levels.
“The LRO instruments, spacecraft, and ground systems continue to
operate essentially flawlessly,” said Craig Tooley, LRO project
manager at Goddard “The team completed the planned commissioning and
calibration activities on time and also got a significant head start
collecting data even before we moved to the mission’s mapping orbit.”
The south pole of the moon is of great interest to explorers because
potential resources such as water ice or hydrogen may exist there.
Permanently shadowed polar craters that are bitterly cold at their
bottoms may hold deposits of water ice or hydrogen from comet impacts
or the solar wind. The deposits may have accumulated in these
“cold-trap” regions over billions of years. If enough of these
resources exist to make mining practical, future long-term human
missions to the moon potentially could save the considerable expense
of hauling water from Earth.
First results from LRO’s Lunar Exploration Neutron Detector, or LEND,
indicate that permanently shadowed and nearby regions may harbor
water and hydrogen. Additional observations will be needed to confirm
this. LEND relies on a decrease in neutron radiation from the lunar
surface to indicate the presence of water or hydrogen.
“If these deposits are present, an analysis of them will help us
understand the interaction of the moon with the rest of the solar
system,” Vondrak said.
Data from LRO’s Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter, or LOLA, however,
indicates that exploring these areas will be challenging because the
terrain is very rough. The roughness is probably a result of the lack
of atmosphere and absence of erosion from wind or water, according to
David Smith, LOLA principal investigator at Goddard.
LRO’s other instruments also are providing data to help map the moon’s
terrain and resources. According to the first measurements from the
Diviner instrument, large areas in the permanently shadowed craters
are about minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit (33 Kelvin), more than cold
enough to store water ice or hydrogen for billions of years.
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera is providing high-resolution
images of permanently shadowed regions while lighting conditions
change as the moon’s south pole enters lunar summer.
LRO’s Lyman Alpha Mapping Project, or LAMP, also is preparing to
search for surface ice and frost in the polar regions. The instrument
provides images of permanently shadowed regions illuminated only by
starlight and the glow of interplanetary hydrogen emission. LAMP has
provided information to confirm the instrument is working well on
both the lunar night and day sides.
The Mini RF Technology Demonstration on LRO has confirmed
communications capability and produced detailed radar images of
potential targets for LRO’s companion mission, the Lunar Crater
Observation and Sensing Satellite, which will impact the moon’s south
pole on Oct. 9.
Meanwhile, LRO’s Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation
instrument is exploring the lunar radiation environment and its
potential effects on humans during record high, “worst-case” cosmic
ray intensities accompanying the extreme solar minimum conditions of
this solar cycle.
Goddard built and manages LRO, a NASA mission with international
participation from the Institute for Space Research in Moscow. Russia
provides the neutron detector aboard the spacecraft.
For more information about LRO and to view the new images, visit: