MARIETTA, Ga. — Two NASA spacecraft designed to study our earth’s moon from crust to core will arrive in lunar orbit as America ushers in the new year this weekend.
A few metro Atlanta school teachers will be among those awaiting word on the successful lunar arrival.
The space agency’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory or GRAIL mission is designed to measure and map the moon’s gravitational field, and maybe learn just how earth and her only natural satellite formed.
The chief astronomer at Cartersville’s Tellus Science Museum, David Dundee, is following the mission and notes the strong scientific impact GRAIL will have for future exploration of the moon.
“GRAIL scientists are going to tell what the crust of the moon is made of as close as we can get to surveying the surface without landing an astronaut,” Dundee states. “This will be the most extensive mapping using this technology.”
The spacecraft will soar over the moon’s south pole as they enter parallel orbits and begin refining their elliptical orbits to prepare for a three month scientific mission in March.
The twin science satellites GRAIL A and B are identical by design, and will see GRAIL A arriving in lunar orbit at 4:21 p.m. EST, on Saturday, with GRAIL B following right behind the next day at 5:05 p.m.
The space duo will operate 34 miles above the lunar surface, making one complete orbit over the poles every twelve hours.
“This mission will rewrite the textbooks on the evolution of the moon,” GRAIL’s principal investigator Maria Zuber from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology states. “Our two spacecraft are operating so well during their journey that we have performed a full test of our science instrument and confirmed the performance required to meet our science objectives.”
The twin crafts lifted off on September 10 riding a top a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla. to begin a power saving low energy slow cruise to the moon.
Dr. Zuber explains as the orbital duo circle the moon the satellites will beam microwave signals at one another to measure the distance between the two. As GRAIL A and B pass over greater or weaker gravitational areas, either craft’s orbit will be pulled down or raised slightly. The information will then be sent to earth and recorded.
Dundee adds the other importance of the mission will be understanding past activity on the moon such as impacts and past lava flows from the core.
At several metro Atlanta middle schools this spring, students will work with GRAIL scientists using a direct hands on approach.
A series of three high resolution cameras known as MoonKAM are designed specially to involve middle school students across the country, including at least five schools around Atlanta, to take investigate photos of the moon’s surface.
Registered teachers and students will request for GRAIL to record images of a lunar region they would like to explore. From a specific crater to an unnamed geographic region of the moon, GRAIL will help inspire young students as new photographs arrive into the classroom via the Internet.
The MoonKAM student project is led by Sally Ride Science, a company which encourages student involvement in science and math. The company, lead by America’s first woman in space Sally K. Ride, says MoonKAM will serve as the student’s eyes on the moon.
GRAIL’s planned mission is designed to end in May. The twin spacecraft will eventually crash into the lunar soil it once flew high above.
(Charles Atkeison covers science & technology which impacts Georgia for lodeplus.com. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)