For a team of NASA scientists, the New Year was marked by the successful process of inserting the agency’s two Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) satellites into Lunar orbit.
“NASA greets the new year with a new mission of exploration,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “The twin GRAIL spacecraft will vastly expand our knowledge of our moon and the evolution of our own planet. We begin this year reminding people around the world that NASA does big, bold things in order to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown.”
The twin probes launched aboard a Delta II rocket on September 10. The mission took advantage of a special region of space called a Lagrange point to reduce the cost both in fuel and dollars to reach the moon. Those savings came at the expense of transit time, as the probes took over four months to reach the moon. Apollo astronauts made the journey in four days in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
Now that the twin probes are in orbit engineers will spend the next several months refining GRAIL’s orbit before beginning the science portion of the mission in March. The probes will create a gravitational map of the lunar surface, giving clues to not only its interior but also that of the Earth and the other rocky planets of the inner solar system. GRAIL also has a student-run experiment called the MoonKAM that will give middle schoolers the opportunity to photograph specific target areas on the surface.
Later this month NASA will announce the winners of a student contest to name each of the spacecraft.