NASA started the new year with a pair of probes circling the moon in the latest mission to understand how Earth’s closest neighbor formed.
There was no champagne popping in the mission control room at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory when the two GRAIL spacecraft arrived back-to-back over the New Year’s weekend, but several scientists and engineers celebrated by blowing noisemakers.
“It’s a really good feeling to have not one, but two of our twins in orbit,” project manager David Lehman said on Sunday after the mission was deemed successful.
The action began on New Year’s Eve when GRAIL-A swung over the south pole, fired its engine and braked into orbit around the moon. Not to be outdone, its twin GRAIL-B executed the same maneuvers on New Year’s Day.
The arrivals capped a roundabout journey spanning three-and-a-half months and covering 4.02 million kilometers.
The moon has long been an object of fascination. Galileo spotted mountains and craters when he peered at it through a telescope. Poets and songwriters have looked to the moon as a muse.
Even governments wanted a piece of the moon. Since the dawn of the Space Age, more than 100 missions launched by the US, Soviet Union, Japan, China and India have targeted Earth’s companion. NASA flew six Apollo missions that landed 12 men on the lunar surface and brought back more than 362.3kg of rock and soil samples.
Despite all the attention, the moon remains mysterious. Mission chief scientist Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said researchers know more about Mars, which is farther away from the Earth, than the moon.
One of the enduring puzzles is its lopsided shape, with the far side more hilly than the side that Earth sees. Research published earlier this year suggested that our planet once had two moons that crashed early in the solar system’s history and created the moon that graces the sky today.
Scientists expect to learn more about how the celestial body formed using the GRAILs’ gravity measurements that will indicate what is below the surface.
Since the washing machine-size GRAIL probes — short for Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory — were squeezed on a small rocket to save on costs, it lengthened the trip and took them 30 times longer to reach the moon than the Apollo astronauts, who took a direct three-day flight.
Previous spacecraft have attempted to study the moon’s gravity — about one-sixth of the Earth’s pull — with mixed success. GRAIL was expected to give scientists the most detailed maps of the moon’s uneven gravitational field and insight into its interior down to the core.
Data collection will not begin until March, after the near--identical spacecraft refine their positions and are circling just 54.72km above the surface.