NASA's Lunar Missions Explore the Moon's South Pole

NASA's Lunar Missions Explore the Moon's South Pole

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter(LRO) and Lunar Crater Observing and Sensing Satellite(LCROSS) are ready to reveal the secrets of the Moon’s south pole. LRO and LCROSS were launched to the Moon together on June 18, 2009. They are the first steps in the Vision for Space Exploration announced by President George W. Bush.

NASA reportsthat LRO has begun detailed mapping of the Moon’s south pole from its 31-mile-high lunar orbit. Initial readings suggest that permanently shadowed areas at the pole may harbor water and hydrogen, but that the rough terrain would be difficult for astronauts to explore. The $540 million orbiter will stay in lunar orbit for at least a year to produce surface, temperature and radiation maps of the Moon, as well as scout for safe landing sites and potential resources for human explorers.

Meanwhile, the LCROSS mission appears to have recovered from problemsencountered in August. Daniel Andres, LCROSS project manager, confirmedSeptember 11 that the spacecraft has enough fuel to accomplish all its mission objectives. The Cabeus A crater at the Moon’s south pole has been selected as the impact point, an event scheduled for October 9, 2009. If executed successfully, LCROSS will measure the properties of the plume of dust – and perhaps ice crystals – caused by the impact of its Centaur upper-stage before colliding with the lunar surface itself four minutes later. Both impacts will be monitored from Earth by a team of astronomers participating in the LCROSS Observation Campaign to maximize the scientific return of the mission.

The National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Space Studies Board published a report, The Scientific Context for Exploration of the Moon, in 2007 discussing the importance of better understanding the Moon’s polar regions. Scientists theorize that water from comet impacts over the eons may still remain in permanently shadowed areas. A “South Pole-Aitken Basin” lunar mission was one of the top priorities of the 2003 NRC Decadal Survey on solar system exploration, a priority that was further endorsed by the 2007 study.

Read a 1-pager Fact Sheet about LRO and LCROSS.

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