NASA To Launch Two Moon Missions

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NASA will launch Thursday two missions to the moon. One spacecraft will orbit the moon and create an unprecedented high-resolution map of the lunar surface. The other mission will send a spent rocket part on a collision course with a permanently shadowed lunar crater.


NASA is about to launch its first mission to the moon in over a decade. If all goes well, a rocket will blast off from Florida tomorrow afternoon. No humans are going up this time, but the rocket will be carrying a couple of probes that are part of NASA's effort to prepare for a future manned mission. One probe will map the moon. The other will search for water. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has that story.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Almost 40 years ago, Craig Tooley watched two men touch the moon for the very first time.

Mr. CRAIG TOOLEY (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Project): I clearly remember, you know, the Apollo 11 landing. I was a young child. But I was old enough to watch it on television and remember it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Now Tooley is working to find safe landing sites for the next generation of lunar explorers. He's in charge of a space craft called the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. It will circle the moon about 31 miles above its surface and gaze down with seven science instruments to create a detailed map of the landscape.

NASA already knows a fair bit about the area around the moon's equator, where the Apollo astronauts landed. But Tooley says the rest of the moon is more mysterious.

Mr. TOOLEY: We, at the moment, have much better maps globally of the planet Mars than we do of the moon.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Tooley says on NASA's current maps, the location of some craters and mountains could be off by miles. And the maps don't have detailed information about smaller landscape features, which would make it difficult to pick a safe spot for a future moon landing.

Mr. TOOLEY: So you wouldn't know if you were coming in - or even planning a landing site - if you were going to, in the end, really be landing on a boulder field with, you know, house-sized boulders or significantly sloped craters.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The lunar orbiter's camera system should be able to detect anything that's bigger than about a foot-and-a-half across. It should even be able to spot some artifacts from those Apollo missions that Tooley watched as a kid.

Mr. TOOLEY: Things like the rovers, or the lower half of the lunar excursion module, and perhaps even bunches of tire tracks and such.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: If NASA does send astronauts back to make new tracks, the lunar poles are appealing as a destination because scientists think they might be home to water ice. Dan Andrews works at NASA's Ames Research Center. He says water could come in handy for future astronauts.

Mr. DAN ANDREWS (Ames Research Center): The availability of water right there on the moon, the availability of producing oxygen, oxidizer for rocket fuel, for other missions, it's very, very interesting if water ice is, indeed, there.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The moon's poles have cold, dark, permanently shadowed craters. Andrews says scientists have detected a curious abundance of hydrogen there. That could mean water.

Mr. ANDREWS: That is no guarantee that there's water ice there, and so there's the open questions.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: To try to answer that question, NASA is sending up a second probe: the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite. It will try to kick up evidence of water by basically throwing a big piece of trash into a dark crater. Andrews says the space craft will take the spent upper stage of its rocket and put it on a collision course with the lunar surface.

Mr. ANDREWS: We're not shooting it into the moon. We simply let go of it, and the lunar gravity actually pulls it in.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The rocket part will smash into a crater and send up a huge plume of dust, and maybe ice, around six miles above the lunar surface. People on Earth who have a decent amateur telescope may be able to see it if they're in the right spot. NASA's observation space craft will get a more close-up view as it flies down through the plume, taking measurements as it goes.

Mr. ANDREWS: We take pictures, slow-rate video, data, back to Earth - send it back to Earth live.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The science data has to come back live because just four minutes later, the spacecraft will be dead. It will slam into the crater as its partner on this moon mission, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, watches from above.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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