A NASA satellite has become the agency’s first unmanned device to orbit the moon in more than a decade. It’s the first step in a program planned to put a human back on the moon in ten years or so.
After correcting course midway through, NASA staff were able to guide the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) into orbit this morning. There will now be a 60 day phase where the instruments on the orbiter will be fully checked, after which the device will orbit between 31 miles and 135 miles above the moon’s surface for a year.
The device is intended to gather the most detail ever collected about the moon’s surface, including high-resolution 3D imaging. The information will form a key part of a long-term plan to put astronauts on the moon for the first time since the mid-70s. As well as mapping, the orbiter has tools which will seek out hidden ice, take temperatures and detect any radiation which could cause a risk to astronauts.
A second unmanned device has also successfully entered lunar orbit today. Unlike the LRO, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) will orbit the around moon’s poles. Eventually it will crash into a crater in the south pole which is currently hidden by shadows. The hope is that the crash will uncover ice below the surface which gives further evidence of water on the moon which could support life.
As well as bringing modern technology to the devices themselves, NASA is using some high-tech ways of publicizing the program. It’s providing streaming images from LCROSS, including the one pictured above.
The agency has also set up a Twitter accounts under the names of, and written in the voice of, the two devices. The two almost appear to have different personalities: while LCROSS stoically reports “I am staring at Mendeleev (Lat 5.7N,Lon 140.9E), a large ancient impact basin with uniform floor deposits,” the LCO announces “The moon has capture me! I am there!”