NASA Moon Probes Enter Lunar Orbit for New Year's Eve/Day
January 2, 2012 1:10 PM
Grail-A and Grail-B
The probes will search the moon "from crust to core" in an effort to understand the moon's origins
Two NASA probes sent to orbit the moon last year have finally entered lunar orbit on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.
The twin probes, named Grail-A and Grail-B (Grail stands for Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory), are part of a $496 million mission that launched September 10, 2011. They are two washing machine-sized probes that were sent to orbit the moon in an effort to
better understand the moon's origins
At this point, it is believed that the moon came to be after a Mars-sized object hit the Earth 4.5 billion years ago and the blast sent large materials out into space that eventually came together to create the moon.
There are many aspects of the moon that remain unknown, however. One question that NASA hopes to uncover is how the moon has evolved since that crash millions of years ago. Also, researchers have wondered why the near side of the moon, which is the side we see from Earth, is so different looking from the far side of the moon. The far side is much more mountainous while the near side consists of plains of volcanic rock.
"We don't actually know why the near side and far side of the moon are different," said Maria Zuber, head Grail investigator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We think that the answer is locked in the interior."
Grail-A and Grail-B were set out to answer such questions, and after launching back in September, the two have finally
entered lunar orbit
to begin searching for clues. Grail-A entered orbit December 31, 2011 while Grail-B made its way to the moon January 1, 2012.
Now, the probes will spend two months orbiting the moon while gradually moving closer to the moon's surface. They'll eventually orbit 34 miles above the surface, and then begin an 82-day journey to find clues about the moon's past. They will search the moon "from crust to core" while remaining 75 to 225 miles apart depending on the differences in the lunar gravity field.
When the probes return their findings back to NASA, researchers will use the information to
create descriptive maps of the moon's
gravitational field, which will provide a better understanding of the moon's formation.
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