NASA's GRAIL reaches lunar orbit, prepares to study moon

Exploring the moon with a fresh, new perspective seems to be NASA’s way of beginning the New Year. Despite ...

Exploring the moon with a fresh, new perspective seems to be NASA’s way of beginning the New Year. Despite there having been several attempts to fully explore the moon, the satellite has been fairly mysterious. NASA now reveals that the second of its two Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) spacecraft will join the first one, in an attempt by NASA to study the moon, better. In an official statement, NASA confirms that GRAIL-B, the second spacecraft is through its initial phase (main engine burn) and has made its way to the lunar orbit, at roughly 2:43 p.m. PST (5:43 p.m. EST) today. Here, GRAIL-B will meet GRAIL-A, and the two will then begin the study of the moon, as NASA puts it - as never before! 


NASA's GRAIL reaches lunar orbit, prepares to study moon

An artist's description of the GRAIL-B performing the lunar orbit insertion burn



Elaborating a little more on the beginning of the mission, NASA states that, "The insertion maneuvers placed the spacecraft into a near-polar, elliptical orbit with an orbital period of approximately 11.5 hours. Over the coming weeks, the GRAIL team will execute a series of burns with each spacecraft to reduce their orbital period to just under two hours. At the start of the science phase in March 2012, the two GRAILs will be in a near-polar, near-circular orbit with an altitude of about 34 miles (55 kilometers)."


NASA further states that during the course of the mission, the two spacecrafts will gauge the estimated distance between them by transmitting radio signals, back and forth. While the report suggests that the distance maintained by the two spacecraft from each other will be quite uniform, for the most part; traversing over mountains and craters, and masses hidden beneath the lunar surface, however, may slightly change it.


All data captured by the spacecrafts, in addition to moon's gravitational field will then be put down by scientists on a hi-res map, enabling them to support their study on the moon and other aspects like - "to understand what goes on below the lunar surface. This information will increase knowledge of how Earth and its rocky neighbors in the inner solar system developed into the diverse worlds we see today".


Interestingly, each of the GRAIL spacecrafts come fitted with a small camera called GRAIL MoonKAM (Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students). GRAIL MoonKAM, a project by Sally Ride, America's first woman in space and her team at Sally Ride Science in collaboration with undergraduate students at the University of California in San Diego aims to further education. 


Those keen on following every development of the mission on their iPhone, can now do so by getting themselves the GRAIL iPhone app. The app, according to NASA, "has specific information about the science and purpose of the mission, and features daily mission news updates, images of the spacecraft during assembly and testing, videos and a countdown timer to launch".


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