Is the Moon a Planet,Too?


Lunar scientist Barbara Cohen explains how our moon functions very much like a planet.

You’ve all probably heard about the International Astronomical Union (IAU) decision to define a planet — probably because it clarified that there is a big belt of icy objects out beyond the orbit of Neptune, and we now know that Pluto is one of thousands of them. The IAU definition also excludes moons from being planets. But did you know our moon functions like a planet? It has a lot to teach us about how planets form and evolve.


Solar system rendering of the eight planets. (Image credit: Koolang Astronomical
Observatory and Science Display Center)
View more blog images

Like the Earth, our moon has a crust, a mantle and a core. These interior layers we think are present on most planets, even if the crust is made of rock or ice. Mars probably has a crust, mantle, and core, and so do Venus and Mercury. The rocks we brought back from the moon from the Apollo missions helped us learn that this process of forming internal layers, or differentiation, is a common process on all planets. So when the moon formed, it formed like a planet.


Another hallmark of planets is that they have active geology. The big, dark splotches you see on the moon’s surface are lava flows. Yes, there were active volcanoes on the moon. There aren’t any volcanic cones, because the lava was very fluid and flowed out through cracks and into low-lying areas. The Apollo samples contain small beads of volcanic glass that tell us there were giant fire-fountains on the moon too. Though volcanic activity on the moon ended about 3 billion years ago, the Apollo missions picked up thousands of earthquakes on the moon, or moonquakes. Moonquakes tell us that the moon is not geologically dead. It’s still acting like a planet today.


Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. (Image credit: Photo Credit: National Park Service)

My favorite part about planets is their impact craters, formed when asteroids or comets whizz into our part of space and collide. When you look at the moon, you can see that it preserves many impact craters on it for researchers like me to study. Did you know that all the craters you see on the moon (and there are hundreds of thousands of them!) had counterparts on the Earth at one point? We don’t see many impact craters on Earth today because the Earth’s crust continually renews itself and erases old rocks and formations.  No one rock on Earth is older than 4 billion years. The Earth definitely got beat up by impacts from comets and asteroids in its past — and that record is preserved for us to study on the moon.

For me, the best thing about the moon is that it may not be defined as a planet, but it definitely acts like one. Studying the moon allows us to learn about how all planets work. And because the moon is ancient, it’s like a time capsule back into the early days of our solar system. But, I also love that the moon looks so beautiful reflecting sunlight to us on dark nights and I can’t wait to get more information from our two lunar missions. Godspeed LRO and LCROSS!

LCROSS Captured in Flight by Amateur Astronomer

On June 29, 2009, as part of the LCROSS Observation Campaign, Paul Mortfield, an avid amateur astronomer and frequent contributer to NASA missions, took a series of images of the LCROSS Shepherding Spacecraft and Centaur as they passed through the night sky. LCROSS is currently orbiting the Earth-moon system on its 5,592,000 mile (9,000,000 km) journey to the moon.

Capturing these images is no easy feat. The spacecraft is only 47 feet (14.5 m) long with a diameter of 10 feet (3 m). At the time of the images were taken, the spacecraft was approximately 288,100 miles (463,700 km) from Earth, traveling at a speed of 0.58 miles/sec (0.94 km/s).

The images were taken with an Apogee U16M 4Kx4K CCD Camera attached to a Ritchey-Chretian 16″f/8.9 telescope and a focal length of 3,530 mm. The image scale is 1.04 arcsec/pixel and the frames were binned 2×2. Each exposure was 60 sec in length to show enough trailing of the spacecraft.

For more information about Paul Mortfield, visit:

To participate in the LCROSS Observation Campaign for amateur astronomers, visit:

Paul's Personal Perspective — Written During Launch Week

Paul Mortfield here at Kennedy Space Center anxiously waiting to see my first launch. I’m with the David Dunlap Observatory just outside Toronto, Canada. The observatory’s 74″ telescope will be participating in the LCROSS NASA observation network for this mission.  We’re excited to have Canada’s largest telescope participating and helping the NASA team.

We just finished doing the LCROSS webcast at Kennedy talking about all the exciting things amateur astronomers and backyard skygazers can do to participate in this NASA mission back to the moon. Amateurs across North America have already been taking images of the polar regions of the moon to help characterize the region near the potential impact sites.

We’re looking for many amateurs to photograph the impact plume to help the scientists further characterize it and compare the images with their observations from the huge telescopes in Hawaii. This is truly an exciting time and a beginning of new era of amateurs participating with NASA missions.

Photo of the David Dunlap Observatory outside Toronto, Canada.
Photo of the David Dunlap Observatory outside Toronto, Canada. Image: Kerry-Ann Lecky Hepburn

New Moon Missions — and New Generations


NASA encourages the investment in our nation’s young minds through a myriad of education programs. The agency has traditionally played a key role in preparing, inspiring, exciting, educating and nurturing the young minds of today, who will be the workforce of tomorrow. Two students involved with the Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope program (GAVRT) program were on hand to observe the June 18 launch of LRO/LCROSS. 

 The GAVRT program enables students to operate and control a 110-foot, 500-ton deep space radio telescope located at NASA’s Deep Space Communication Complex at Goldstone, California. This program is a partnership between NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), along with the Lewis Center for Educational Research.

The program allows students to actually take control of the massive satellite dish via the Internet to study a variety of radio sources in space. Students collect and analyze data that goes into a database used by professional scientists worldwide. Much of the student data are published in professional journals, which demonstrates to students the importance of their data and contributes to the “team building” goals of the GAVRT program.

The Purpose of the GAVRT program is to provide students and educators with curriculum vehicles that will promote science literacy, support a better understanding of the scientific community, and to provide the opportunity to collect real-time data with sophisticated science equipment through distance learning.

Alicia and Chase share their experiences in the posts below.

 


Alicia Scarberry

A once in a lifetime experience along with simple and joyous laughter is the perfect memory. These memories will last a lifetime. I have to say that these memories mean more to me than any before. I honestly feel that most people never reach the sincere state of gratitude and appreciation for life that I have found from this trip. I am known to be a very very very friendly human being, but even I cannot find the words to come close to showing what these days and these people mean to me. Today was the LCROSS Launch!!!! The weather began to change and people were talking about changing the date. People would be the happiest of their life at one point and then a few minutes later, be filled with sadness. So many people came together for this launch and there was unbelievable desire for success.

I wanted the LRO/ LCROSS to launch not only for me to see, but for those who had put all their passion, conviction, and drive into making this mission a great achievement. When the rocket launched, I had a wave of utter bliss and joy run through me. I have to say seeing Brian Day glow was a definite highlight! I loved seeing other members of the LCROSS Team crying with happiness. All around I will cherish that moment for as long as I live. It was so great to see the flames, the smoke, and ohhh man the noise was unlike anything I have ever heard. There was a great and powerful rumble throughout the sky. It was an awesome sight to see!

I can say that this trip has changed my life. The GAVRT Program has changed my life and has provided me with the chance to see my very greatest potential. I have not only gained a profound love for science, but I have learned to believe in myself. We need to come to the realization that now is our time to shine. The GAVRT Program gives anyone the chance to be a hero. You! Yep, you can be involved! You can help NASA’s return to the moon. From children to grandparents, anyone can participate. My heart is filled with excitement for this Mission. The partnership of GAVRT and NASA is just beginning.

The future has no boundaries and the present is ready for you to be an explorer, be an inspiration, and most of all make a difference in this world. It is so easy. I have been blessed to be a part of such a wonderful organization and I would love to see many more students with the incredible opportunities I have been given. I have taken so much from these experiences. I have learned the importance of trust, ambition, confidence, and most of all hope. I have learned that one human being can have an outstanding impact on this world. But more importantly that a group unified and filled with trust and humility can make any dreams come true. I am ready to make an imprint in the world of science, ready to discover, and most of all…ready to inspire people just the way that these wonderful people have inspired me. Thank you to all for your kindness and most of all for having faith in me.


Chase Baines

When I look back on this Florida journey years from now, I will have many memories. Of all the great memories I have had here, today was definitely the highlight. Today served as the culmination of many astronauts, scientists, and engineers work for the past five years. With all of the excitement that occurred to today, it is ironic how the launch was just minutes away from possibly being scrubbed. Thank goodness it wasn’t.

The day started out well as we returned to Cape Canaveral. Our first stop was the Astronaut Hall of Fame. Although we only had a few minutes to spend at the Hall of Fame, we saw a lot while we were there. We got to see a lot of different equipment and displays from the Apollo missions. After our time at the HOF concluded, we headed back to Kennedy Space Center. At KSC, we saw our second 3D IMAX film in the last two days. This film talked about the different tasks that have been completed over the years at the International Space Station. After the film, we began to prepare to board the bus to head out to the launch viewing area. After about an hour, we went out to the point where we would view the Atlas V rocket launch. Unfortunately, about thirty minutes prior to the first launch time slot, it appeared as if the LCROSS launch would be delayed yet again until Friday. Although some might not understand why one day would make that much of a difference, it would be quite disheartening for our GAVRT (Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope) if the launch was delayed because we are heading home tomorrow. The reason for the concern was due to potential thunderstorms in the area.

To our delight, we soon found out that it would indeed be safe for the rocket to launch. One of the best memories of the day occurred about five minutes before the launch. Our fine country’s national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner, was triumphantly played over the speakers. As I listened to the anthem, it was amazing to feel how much patriotism was in the air. As I heard the words I thought about all of the astronauts who had risked their lives in hopes of improving space exploration. It is because of great men and women like the Apollo 1 and Challenger crews, who gave their lives for their country in the name of astronomy. Without their efforts, it is unlikely that America would be in the position that it is today; on the verge of returning to the moon. The launch finally arrived and it was nothing short of spectacular. The countdown felt like an eternity as we thought about what was to come in the future plans of NASA. As the rocket ascended above the clouds, we all knew that a new era of lunar exploration had arrived, and it was vibrantly illustrated far above us.

I will never forget the extraordinary memories I have had on this trip. I am anxiously looking forward to tracking LCROSS as it grows closer to its’ lunar impact.

Good night!


Kim Bunnell
Lewis Center for Educational Research
Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope (GAVRT) Program

It almost didn’t happen. Over 2,000 miles, lost luggage, little sleep, approaching storm; but at about 5:20pm EDT today, we heard the words, “We are green for launch!”  Cheers erupted amongst the bleachers that held hundreds of people. It was an incredible event (and very difficult to take photos as all I wanted to do was stare!).  It seemed to move in slow motion at first but soon disappeared in the ubiquitous clouds.  I felt very blessed to witness the event in person (in fact, I highly recommend it if you ever get the chance!).

One of the most memorable things I noticed was the team or family atmosphere that surrounded Kennedy Space Center.  Individuals from all over the United States worked on either LRO or LCROSS, yet the respect they had for each other was profound.  There were so many different teams coming together as one. It felt like attending a family reunion. Their emotions were evident on their faces and all were choked to see the spacecraft finally lift off.

Thank you to everyone at NASA Ames Research Center, especially Brian Day, for inviting GAVRT to be a part of your program and for allowing me take part in this exciting event. 

Good luck, God Bless, and God speed!

New NASA Missions Rendezvous With Moon


The LCROSS spacecraft has successfully completed its swing-by of the moon and is settling into a normal cruise mode. During the fly-by, LCROSS beamed spectacular first-light images of the moon back to Earth via streaming video.

The maneuver provides LCROSS with a gravity assist to help with cruise orbit. The LCROSS spacecraft will be “up close and personal” again with the moon on Oct. 9 — the day of impact.

LRO has also met a significant milestone after a four and a half day journey from Earth —  the orbiter is now successfully orbiting the moon.  Over the course of the next four days, LRO will perform four engine burns that will put the satellite into its commissioning phase orbit. The commissioning phase is where each of LRO’s seven instruments get checked out and turned on. After commissioning is complete (about 60 days after launch), the spacecraft is expected to be fully operational and the one year exploration phase of the mission will begin.

Both missions are one step closer to exploring our closest celestial neighbor.

Studying the Moon's Craters — in Color


Tony Colaprete, chief scientist for LCROSS, on how a lot of wavelengths will lead to a better understanding of lunar soil.

LCROSS is going someplace we have never been before: a permanently shadowed crater at the south pole of the moon.  The trip is being made to study the source of hydrogen that has been measured at the lunar poles by the previous Lunar Prospector mission. LCROSS will make an impact into the floor of a shadowed crater so that some of the lunar soil in the crater will be lifted into sunlight…the first sunlight it will have seen in perhaps one or two billion years.

When the lunar soil, the ejecta of the impact, reaches sunlight a variety of observatories and instruments will make measurements.  There are a variety of theories regarding the source of the hydrogen including it being in the form of water ice, adsorbed water (chemically bound to lunar grains), hydrated minerals, hydrocarbons, or even captured solar protons.

Since we really don’t know the source of the hydrogen signature, the LCROSS mission looks across a broad range of possibilities, making a variety of measurements that address as many of the possibilities as possible.  Measurements are made from the LCROSS shepherding spacecraft from the ultraviolet wavelengths to thermal wavelengths, taking images as well as spectroscopic measurements.  Combining all these measurements will help us understand the composition and properties of shadowed lunar soil in the most unambiguous way.

Here I am below, seen from the five cameras on the LCROSS shepherding spacecraft:

 

On Course for the Moon!


The wait is over! Under cloudy skies LRO and LCROSS thundered into the atmosphere enroute to the moon. Watch the launch (MP4, 143 MB) 


NASA’s LRO and LCROSS spacecraft on top of the Atlas V rocket launch from
Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Image: NASA


An United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket blasts off with NASA’s LRO/LRCOSS
mission from Space Launch Complex-41, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.,
at 5:32 p.m. EDT today. Image Credit: Pat Corkery, United Launch Alliance

Everyone was nervous with all the weather constraints and afraid a nearby thunderstorm would scrub the launch and force it to go on Friday. But the weather was with us and we heard those magic words that we were “good to go.”


Countdown clock, post-launch, L+28

The next mission milestones will be separation of the spacecraft from each other. Then later tonight we’ll wait for the upper stage Centaur to turn over operations to the LCROSS spacecraft.

Why Study the Moon?


Victoria Friedensen, HQ program executive for LCROSS, weighs in on why the Moon is far from a case of “been there, done that…”

I think that sometimes we treat the Moon with a BTDT attitude — you know, “been there, done that?” But really, have we really done that?

The Moon is our closest neighbor, but like many of us today, how well do we know this neighbor? Have we gone by, looked closely, and gotten to know this friendly presence better?

It’s right there, look up: it’s beautiful, changeable, but no mysteries right? There are a couple of really good mysteries there — as well as some really good galactic history. Two questions intriguing planetary scientists today are why the gravity of the moon is uneven and why there is so much hydrogen at the lunar poles. These questions are important as the answers can inform our understanding of Earth’s past, and our future. If we can understand the variations in gravity of the moon — that was formed at the same time as Earth — we can better understand the gravity variations of Earth (and maybe understand gravity a bit better — very mysterious stuff, gravity). There are unexpected amounts of hydrogen at the lunar poles; one hypothesis is that it is from ancient cometary water ice that never evaporated having never been exposed to sunlight. If there is water on the moon, it could become a very important resource for future human activities there. The LRO and LCROSS missions will seek answers to both these mysteries.

As for galactic history? The moon is bombarded constantly and, because there is no “environment” that changes, everything stays there — to be read closely. We’re in the midst of a lunar research program that will provide us with new knowledge of how our solar system came to be, and how our own galaxy formed. This is pretty good stuff and it’s right next door. Kind of like finding out that the kindly neighbor next door used to the Librarian of Congress and knows everything.

We’re going back to the moon to spend some time. I believe we will find this celestial neighbor informative and fascinating. And in learning more from our neighbor we will learn more about our home and ourselves.

How Did LRO and LCROSS Become the First Step Back to the Moon?


Mike Wargo, the chief lunar scientist for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, gives some insight on the history of LRO/LCROSS. You can listen here (2 MB).

How did NASA’s LRO/LCROSS missions become the “first step” back to the moon?

Before the LRO or LCROSS missions were even thought of, NASA already was busy thinking about the things we didn’t know about the moon — what data we’d need to have in hand to be able to go back and perform longer-term exploration and science missions. It’s kind of the same kind of planning involved in getting ready for a vacation. If you were driving, what’s one of the first things you’d want to bring with you?  I know I’d go out and get a really good atlas, the best maps of all different types. You’d want to know where you were going and what’s there and you’d want to be prepared for the unexpected, or you might not ever want to repeat the trip. The moon is the just like that.


Excitement is building at Cape Canaveral as visitors arrive for the launch of NASA’s Lunar
Reconnaissance Orbiter and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite missions
to the moon. Launch is set for 5:12 p.m. EDT.

We don’t have a good set of maps of the lunar terrain. Think of some of the questions you might ask along the way.  How steep is that ridge we see over that hill?  How hot will it be when we get there? How cold will it get at night? Are there going to be any big rocks in our way when we’re landing?  Now, we only know about certain safe landing areas pretty close to the equator. We don’t know how to get to various sites on the moon, since some types of our lunar maps have places where it’s fuzzy or even have gaping holes in them in some places. Our earlier Apollo explorers brought back good data, but we need to know a lot more before we go there to stay.

NASA wants returning crews to be safe, healthy and productive, so they gathered some of the best lunar scientist to help figure out what we already knew and what we still need to know.

Keeping in mind the idea that science enables exploration and exploration enables science, some of the brightest minds at NASA got together to answer questions like: What would a mission look like that would gather the kind of data that would be needed to map the lunar surface for future exploration?  What kind of measurements would it need to make?  What would be the best way to fly around the moon to make those measurements? The result was the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter or LRO mission that will get close to the moon to take the measurements needed to produce a variety of maps of the surface, maps that would make up an altlas of the most important information we will need to explore. The LRO will orbit the moon at an altitude of a mere 50 kilometers (30 miles). At that low altitude, LRO will encounter what some scientists call “lumpy gravity,” that can affect how a spacecraft moves around the moon comparable to the way turbulence affects how airplanes move through rough air, but where the unexpected motions of the spacecraft are caused by small changes in the local gravity rather than by unexpected air motion. Just like airplane passengers feel, this can jostle the spacecraft and cause it to depart its intended orbit. It also increases the amount of fuel consumed by the spacecraft to keep it headed in the right direction. That’s why LRO has a big fuel tank.

The Atlas V was selected for the LRO mission and because it is a big rocket, there was ample room for another spacecraft to go along with it. NASA asked if you had this much mass, only this amount of money, the best partners and minds in academia and industry, what could you do? They got a bunch of responses and decided to choose the proposal that answered one of the oldest questions they wanted to know: Water, does it exist in the shadowed craters of the moon? That’s why LCROSS was chosen, it was a low-cost, innovative mission.

Lunar Missions Start Their Roll Toward the Moon


Even though it was a scorching 90 degrees at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA’s two lunar missions, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or LRO, and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, made their roll to launch complex 41 looking sharp. Compared to the space shuttle, the roll was quick and took only about 35 minutes..not bad at all.


Watch the rollout (MP4, 14 MB)


An United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter
and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellites (LRO/LCROSS) rolls out from
its Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex-41, Cape Canaveral Air
Force Station, Fla. Image credit: United Launch Alliance/Pat Corkery

The two missions are scheduled to launch together tomorrow (Thursday June 18) and have three launch opportunities, starting at 5:12 p.m., 5:22 p.m. and 5:32 p.m. EDT.

To the moon or bust!