At 5:32 p.m. EDT, June 18, 2009, an United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket roared off the launch pad at Launch Complex 41 to begin the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite missions to the moon.
The LRO instruments return global data, such as day-night temperature maps, a global geodetic grid, high resolution color imaging and the moon's UV albedo. However there is particular emphasis on the polar regions of the moon where continuous access to solar illumination may be possible and the prospect of water in the permanently shadowed regions at the poles may exist. Although the objectives of LRO are explorative in nature, the payload includes instruments with considerable heritage from previous planetary science missions, enabling transition, after one year, to a science phase under NASA's Science Mission Directorate.
Above : Artist rendering of the LRO spacecraft.
Why Go to the Moon?
The United States and its partners have begun a program to extend human presence in the solar system, beginning with a return to the Moon. The return to the Moon will enable the pursuit of scientific activities that address our fundamental questions about the history of Earth, the solar system and the universe - and about our place in them. It will allow us to test technologies, systems, flight operations and exploration techniques to reduce the risk and increase the productivity of future missions to Mars and beyond. It will also expand Earth's economic sphere to conduct lunar activities with benefits to life on the home planet.
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is the first step in this endeavor, an unmanned mission to create the comprehensive atlas of the Moon's features and resources necessary to design and build a lunar outpost. LRO follows in the footsteps of the predecessors to the Apollo missions - missions designed in part to search for the best possible landing sites (such as the Ranger, Lunar Orbiter and Surveyor missions). However, building a lunar outpost implies extended periods on the lunar surface and so the goals of LRO go beyond the requirements of these previous missions. LRO focuses on the selection of safe landing sites, identification of lunar resources, and the study of how the lunar radiation environment will affect humans. [More]
What Will We Do There?
LRO is collecting detailed information about the Lunar environment. The LRO payload, comprised of six instruments and one technology demonstration, will provide key data sets to enable a human return to the Moon.
Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation
The Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation (CRaTER) characterizes the lunar radiation environment and determine its potential biological impacts. CRaTER also tests models of radiation effects and shielding, which may enable the development of protective technologies.
Diviner Lunar Radiometer Experiment
The Diviner Lunar Radiometer (DLRE) provides orbital thermal mapping measurements, giving detailed information about surface and subsurface temperatures (identifying cold traps and potential ice deposits), as well as landing hazards such as rough terrain or rocks.
Lyman Alpha Mapping Project
The Lyman Alpha Mapping Project (LAMP) maps the entire lunar surface in the far ultraviolet. LAMP also searches for surface ice and frost in the polar regions and provide images of permanently shadowed regions illuminated only by starlight.
Lunar Exploration Neutron Detector
The Lunar Exploration Neutron Detector (LEND) creates high resolution hydrogen distribution maps and provides information about the lunar radiation environment. LEND is used to search for evidence of water ice on the Moon's surface, and provides space radiation environment measurements useful for future human exploration.
Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter
The Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) measurea landing site slopes, lunar surface roughness, and generate a high resolution 3D map of the Moon. LOLA also identifies the Moon's permanently illuminated and permanently shadowed areas by analyzing Lunar surface elevations.
Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) retrieves high resolution black and white images of the lunar surface, capturing images of the lunar poles with resolutions down to 1m, and imaging the lunar surface in color and ultraviolet. These images provide knowledge of polar illumination conditions, identify potential resources & hazards, and enable safe landing site selection.
Mini-RF Technology Demonstration
The Mini-RF technology demonstration's primary goal is to search for subsurface water ice deposits. In addition, Mini-RF will take high-resolution imagery of permanently-shadowed regions.
What Does LRO Give Us ?
With a comprehensive data set focused on supporting the extension of human presence in the solar system, LRO helps identify sites close to potential resources with high scientific value, favorable terrain and the environment necessary for safe future robotic and human lunar missions. All LRO initial data sets are deposited in the Planetary Data System (PDS), a publicly accessible repository of planetary science information, within six months of primary mission completion. Thereafter, the data sets will be deposited in the PDS every three months. The processed data sets will help the world develop a deeper understanding of the lunar environment, paving the way for a safe human return to the Moon and for future human exploration of our solar system.
Space Science Paper
"The Instrument Suite and Mission"