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Alumni Newsletter: July '08 to July '09

by Debra Hurwitz

And we are a ‘go’ for launch!” Professor Michael Wyatt, graduate students Kerri Donaldson Hanna, Brendan Hermalyn, Angela Stickle and I and the rest of the crowd in the bleachers cheer in anticipation as we watch the towering launch pad supporting the Atlas V and Centaur rockets from across the river 5 miles away. The stormy weather had finally passed far enough to the southwest to go “green” for launch, and the months and hours and minutes of waiting to return to the Moon for the first time in over a decade are finally nearing an end: eight months spent waiting for the rescheduled launch date to arrive, more than 4 hours waiting in the hot June Florida sun for the appointed moment, and 20 additional minutes waiting for the weather to clear, not to mention the more than 3 years of planning and preparation that got us to this point. Needless to say, the announcement of “’go’ for launch!” had us all jumping on top our seats with our cameras and binoculars trained on the launch pad.

l-r: Angela Stickle, Kerri Donaldson Hanna, Debra Hurwitz, Professor Mike Wyatt and his wife and parents (behind), and Brendan Hermalyn


The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), together with its sister the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), marks our return to the Moon with a joint mission primarily looking for evidence of water-ice deposits within permanently shadowed impact craters in the lunar south-polar region, as well as to constrain lunar surface characteristics in preparation for future manned missions. The permanently shadowed craters are far enough to the south that they never receive direct sunlight, leading scientists to believe that water ice may have accumulated there over the course of lunar history. Previous mapping efforts have identified anomalously high concentrations of hydrogen in these craters, supporting this hypothesis. The LRO/LCROSS missions intend to directly detect the source of this hydrogen concentration by sending LCROSS on a controlled impact using the Centaur rocket into the southern craters while LRO orbits above, watching and documenting the impact and subsequent ejecta plume with its seven onboard instruments.

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The seven instruments aboard LRO include the Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation (CRaTER), Diviner Lunar Radiometer Experiment (DLRE), Lyman Alpha Mapping Project (LAMP), Lunar Exploration Neutron Detector (LEND), Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA), Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC), and Mini-Radio Frequency Technology Demonstration (Mini-RF). CRaTER will characterize the lunar radiation environment and will test models of radiation effects and shielding by measuring radiation absorption by human tissue-like plastic, aiding in the development of protective technologies required for a human return to the Moon. The Diviner (DLRE) experiment will measure surface and subsurface temperatures to identify cold traps representing potential ice deposits as well as rough terrain and rock abundances to identify possible landing sites. LAMP will map the entire lunar surface in the far ultraviolet (UV) spectrum, searching for surface ice and frost and providing images of permanently shadowed regions illuminated only by starlight and the glow of inter-planetary hydrogen emission (the Lyman Alpha line). LEND will create high-resolution maps of hydrogen distribution to search for evidence of water ice near the Moon’s surface. LOLA will measure potential landing site slopes, lunar surface roughness, and generate a 3-dimensional map of the Moon. LROC will take high resolution black and white images of the surface at a resolution of 1 m (3.3 feet) for 10% of the lunar surface and at a resolution of 100 m (330 feet) for the entire lunar surface. These images will be used to identify potential resources, hazards, and safe landing sites for future missions to the Moon. Finally, Mini-RF will be used to image the polar regions and search for water ice as well as to demonstrate the ability to communicate with an Earth-based ground station. The data provided by these instruments will be analyzed in order to identify compositional and physical characteristics of the lunar surface and environment in preparation for future manned missions.

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Launches are always exciting, of course, and so much has to go right in order to get the “go” signal – weather, equipment, personnel, not to mention scheduling conflicts. This time the LRO/LCROSS launch was scheduled very close to the launch of the space shuttle Endeavor mission STS-127 that is slated to dock with the International Space Station and deliver the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Kibo laboratory, a module that will allow experiments to be exposed to the harsh vacuum of space. STS-127 was scheduled to launch June 13, five days before LRO/LCROSS. Unfortunately, this launch attempt was scrubbed due to a hydrogen leak in the connection between the gas vent line and Endeavor’s external fuel tank. This launch was rescheduled for the early hours of June 17 in order to fix the problem, pushing the LRO/LCROSS launch back at least a day. Unfortunately, the problem was not quickly fixed and the second Endeavor launch attempt was also scrubbed and is currently scheduled for the evening of July 11. Because the shuttle did not launch, however, LRO/LCROSS was given the green light for launch during the late afternoon of June 18.

As VIP NASA guests attending the launch, we were invited to view the launch from the Saturn V facility on Kennedy Space Center property, where we could see both shuttle pads 39A and 39B, as well as the Atlas pad supporting LRO/LCROSS from across Banana Creek. The weather wasn’t ideal, with storms to our west forcing the launch to be postponed until the third and final launch window of the afternoon. But once the announcement was made that we were a “go” for launch, all the hours of waiting disappeared, and the excitement of the pending launch set in. As the countdown expired, the rocket in the distance shot into the sky, slowly at first before picking up speed, with the bright fireball of burning fuel trailing behind. As the rocket ascended, the deep rumbling of the launch finally reached us, intensifying in volume as the clouds swallowed the rocket, hiding it from view. We were finally on our way back to the Moon!

Since the launch, LRO and LCROSS separated and continued on their independent paths, with LRO heading directly to the Moon for a successful orbital insertion five days later on June 23 and with LCROSS continuing on a path that takes it around the entire Earth-Moon system to bring it into position for impact on October 9. LRO will be in a commissioning stage for the next eight weeks, during which time each instrument will be turned on and carefully calibrated to ensure that they operate optimally. The nominal mission of LRO will be one year, though if everything performs optimally the mission could be extended to as much as four years.

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