Constellation has its eyes on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and is anticipating some great images. The spacecraft entered lunar orbit on the morning of June 23 and after that orbit is refined engineers will power up and calibrate LRO’s instruments. In a couple months, LRO will begin mapping the lunar surface to find future landing sites and searching for resources that would make possible a permanent human presence on the moon.
While the Apollo missions demonstrated that that it was possible to send humans to the moon, they did so for very short times – only three days, and at great risks. The LRO mission is paving the way for extended human habitation on the lunar surface and striving to reduce the risks to the astronauts travelling there.
LRO’s very high resolution cameras and laser altimeter will examine more than 50 potential landing and outpost sites on the lunar surface in enough detail to resolve an object the size of a beach ball. This will provide information to engineers currently designing the Altair lunar lander and allow them to build safe and effective landing systems, and will give mission planners the information they need to select safe landing sites.
Plus, the logistics resupply of a lunar outpost will be a challenge far exceeding that of the International Space Station. It will be necessary for lunar astronauts to learn to “live off the land” by utilizing the resources available on the moon. These may include water in permanently shadowed regions of the lunar poles, which could be invaluable for both consumables for the astronauts and propellant for their spacecraft. LRO instruments will map these regions of shadow and determine whether and where these resources are located. In addition, LRO will map the resources of the entire moon’s surface looking for deposits of other valuable resources, such as oxygen, locked in the lunar soil.
The availability of energy also will be the determining factor on how effective humans will be in accomplishing lunar science and exploration objectives. Because the moon’s axis is not tilted like the Earth’s, there are regions of the lunar poles that receive almost continuous sunlight, rather than the 28-day cycle of light and dark found in most regions. This will allow solar power systems to provide electricity to a lunar outpost with much greater efficiency. The LRO cameras will accurately determine these regions of perpetual sunlight by observing them over an entire year.
See the LRO web site for additional info: http://lro.gsfc.nasa.gov/