A new lunar mission launched June 18, 2009, from Cape Canaveral and executed its first flyby of the Moon five days later.
Faculty in two major research institutes at the University of Hawaiʻi are watching eagerly—one group intent on new data from orbiting instruments while another focuses on a pair of planned crash landings.
Four decades after the first moon walk, the mission is tied to NASA’s plan to return people to Earth’s nearest neighbor by 2020. Mālamalama explains in our continued coverage of the International Year of Astronomy.
Bird’s eye view
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched on an Atlas rocket, will peer at the Moon from a low polar orbit (about 30 miles above the surface), collecting detailed information about the lunar environment for a year.
Three UH Mānoa researchers are contributing scientists on three of the suite of seven powerful instruments aboard the LRO: B. Ray Hawke, Jeffrey Gillis-Davis and Paul Lucey, all part of the Hawaiʻi Institute of Geophysics and Planetology.
Hawke will work with data from the LRO Camera, which will acquire high-resolution images, down to one meter, of the lunar surface in order to help identify landing sites for future explorers and characterize the Moon’s topography and composition. The instrument’s principle investigator is planetary geosciences alumnus Mark Robinson (PhD ’93 Mānoa).
Gillis-Davis is part of the Miniature Radio Frequency team. Mini-RF is a radar device that looks for evidence of ice deposits on lunar poles. Gillis-Davis will use the radar data to investigate pyroclastic deposits, volcanic materials that were explosively erupted into space and fell back to the Moon’s surface as tiny glass beads.
Locating ice and/or pyroclastic deposits will provide future lunar explorers with an opportunity to use these resources and a better understanding of the interior composition of the Moon.
Lucey works with the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter. LOLA will generate a high resolution 3-D map of the Moon that will be used to measure the slopes and roughness of potential future landing sites and characterize the polar lighting environment. It will use its laser to image permanently shadowed polar regions in search of locations where surface ice crystals may lie in polar craters.
He will compare the laser reflectivity of the Moon’s day and night sides to map the abundance of minerals that change color with temperature.
Water witching, lunar style
While LRO orbits the Moon, its companion Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, will make an impact, literally, in its search for Moon moisture. Institute for Astronomy scientists are involving students and amateur astronomers in the data collection.
Previous space missions have detected hydrogen inside lunar craters near the Moon’s poles. While the Sun’s heat would have caused most water near the Moon’s surface to evaporate long ago, these craters are permanently shadowed, so water ice may still exist there.
LCROSS consists of the upper stage of the rocket, which will act as the impactor, and the Shepherding Spacecraft, which is guiding the rocket through multiple 38-day orbits of the Earth-Moon system.
This will give scientists time to select and target a crater with great precision. The impactor will separate from the spacecraft and hit the lunar South Pole at more than twice the speed of a bullet.
Cameras on the Shepherding Spacecraft will photograph the rocket’s descent and impact into the Moon. Four minutes later, the Shepherding Spacecraft will descend through the dust plume, analyzing it with instruments for evidence of water, and transmit the data back to Earth before it too hits the Moon.
Earth’s view of the impacts will be obscured by the crater’s rim. However, the impact cloud, which should rise more than three miles above the lunar surface, should be visible from Earth several seconds after impact.
Ground-based and orbiting observatories (including LRO) will observe the dust and, if present, the water vapor plumes. The impacts will be timed so that they can be observed with the large telescopes on Mauna Kea, including the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility, the W. M. Keck Observatory, Gemini North, Subaru and the Canada-France-Hawaiʻi Telescopes.
Individuals with telescopes as small as 10-12 inches should also be able to see the impact cloud. So amateur astronomers and students will participate in the mission, assisting with observations that will characterize the impact target so that NASA knows exactly where to aim the spacecraft.
Some students will be able to use the Faulkes Telescope North on Maui and the Goldstone Apple Valley Radio, a 34-meter dish located in California that is part of NASA’s Deep Space Network, to follow the progress of LCROSS from their classrooms to help NASA monitor spacecraft health and status.
Amateur astronomers will also observe the impact. Several Institute for Astronomy staff members, including Technology Education and Outreach Specialist J. D. Armstrong and Optics/Electronics Engineer Joseph Ritter on Maui, and Science Education and Public Outreach Officer Gary Fujihara and NASA Astrobiology Institute Postdoctoral Fellow Josh Walawender in Hilo worked with groups of amateur astronomers and students to prepare for the mission.
Images of the impact from the public will be added to the LCROSS gallery alongside those from the professional community and enhance the archive of data chronicling the impact and its aftermath.
For information on observing, see the LCROSS observation site.
UH Mānoa Public Information Officer Dyan Kleckner and Louise Good, editor of the Institute for Astronomy’s Nā Kilo Hōkū newsletter, contributed to this report. Watch the newsletter for updates on LCROSS.