NASA launched its first moon shot in a decade Thursday, sending up a pair of unmanned science probes that will help determine where astronauts could land and set up camp in years to come.
The liftoff occurred just one month and two days shy of the 40th anniversary of the first lunar footprints. The mission is a first step in NASA’s effort to return humans to the moon by 2020.
Scientists cheered as the Atlas V rocket carrying the two spacecraft blasted off in late afternoon, ducking through clouds and providing an exhilarating start to the $583 million mission.
“It was amazing,” said John Keller, a deputy project scientist.
The two spacecraft should reach the moon in four to five days — or by early next week. One will enter into an orbit around the moon for a mapping mission. The other will swing past the moon and go into an elongated orbit around Earth that will put it on course to crash into a crater at the moon’s south pole in October.
NASA expects the dramatic moon-impacting part of the mission to be “a smashing success.” It’s a quest to determine whether frozen water is buried in one of the permanently shadowed craters. Water would be a tremendous resource for pioneering astronauts.
“We’re going to be doing some lunar prospecting, if you will, excavation style,” said project manager Dan Andrews.
It’s an unusual two-for-one moon shot.
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will provide a high-precision, three-dimensional map of the lunar surface. It will circle the lunar poles and, via its seven science instruments, provide a new atlas of the moon as well as a guidebook for future explorers.
When it comes time to launch astronauts to the moon, NASA wants to avoid putting them down on an uneven surface, near boulders or in a crater.
“The Apollo program accepted risk and was able to have safe landings,” said Richard Vondrak, project scientist for the orbiter. “But we want to return to the moon, make repeated landings in some areas, and be able to go there with a higher degree of safety.”
via NASA launches unmanned moon shot, first in decade – Yahoo! News.
If the Apollo images were a hoax, the recent Japanese video may be our best look at the real surface of the moon. One possibility NASA investigated early on was that the moon’s surface would be too soft to land, that the lander would just sink into the moon dust.