Tiny Asteroid 2010 TG19 Approaches Earth

Using the Marshall Space Flight Center 0.5 meter telescope in New Mexico, NASA astronomer Rob Suggs captured this view of the tiny asteroid 2010 TG19 as it made its way among the stars of the constellation Pegasus.

Taken before sunup on Oct. 15, the animated sequence shows the movement of the asteroid, then 4.25 million miles away from Earth, over 45 minutes. Only 75 yards across, 2010 TG19 is very faint at magnitude +18 , which is near the limit of the telescope. It will continue to approach during the next few days, finally coming within 268,500 miles of our planet, or almost as close as the moon, at noon EDT on Friday, Oct. 22.

Courtesy of Rob Suggs, Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.

A New Look at an Old Neighbor

We have yet to uncover the full wealth of scientific information the moon holds. It at the cornerstone of understanding the birth and evolution of Earth and other planets, therefore we need to explore it.

The moon looks very unchanging and calm in the night sky and is rarely thought of as an active planetary body. What most people don’t know, is the moon receives LCROSS-sized impacts about once a week — that’s more than 50 impacts a year! It also is interesting to note that it experiences thousands of  “moonquakes” each year and releases energy by heat flow, electromagnetic conduction and tides from Earth and the Sun.

Moon’s Copernicus Crater — Lunar Orbiter Photo 1966 (Credit: NASA)

LCROSS is unique compared to the natural barrage of material impacting the moon because it’s designed to know exactly where and when it will impact — the Cabeus crater near the moon’s south pole.

 Craters of interest around the lunar south pole. LCROSS is targeting Cabeus A.
(Credit: NMSU/MSFC Tortugas Observatory)

Little is known about the moon’s permanently shadowed regions and we may find some unexpected results from this unique mission. The crater is more than two miles deep and may be one of the coldest places in the solar system. Scientists believe it has been void of sunlight for billions of years and represents an optimal location for determining if water ice exists on the moon.

Teams of scientists, engineers and astronomers across NASA, industry and academia are working tirelessly to advance space exploration and knowledge of our solar system with this mission. Now that LCROSS is two days away from impact, they still have a lot of work ahead of them. For example, they will observe the impacts, gather images of them, measure the quantity of water and identify its form and study the lunar soil.

This exciting mission promotes participatory exploration from the professional and amateur astronomy community, students and the general public.

During impact, at least twenty-five Earth-based observatories will be aimed at the Cabeus crater to witness the moment the lunar dust rises and is suspended in the sunlight to determine if it contains water vapor.

It's Been Worth the Wait!

As a 30 year-old research assistant at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, I have a unique perspective of the Apollo missions. I was not alive when humans last walked on the moon; the Apollo missions were part of my parents’ generation. With live televised coverage from the lunar surface and glossy photo spreads in magazines, places like Tranquility Base, the Descartes Highlands, and Fra Mauro became familiar during the Apollo program. However after the final Apollo mission left the moon, many forgot these significant lunar landmarks. That changes today. With the amazing images of the Apollo landing sites taken through NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), the Apollo landing sites are once again significant for today’s generation.

These images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), released July 17, show
five of the six Apollo landing sites with arrows pointing out the lunar descent
module visible resting on the lunar surface. (NASA/GSFC/ASU)
View other images of the moon in our blog’s Flickr gallery.

The Apollo landing sites are no longer simply historic sites revealed through 40 year-old images taken by the Apollo astronauts.  Instead, they are dynamic landscapes that can be seen in a new light through LRO. These special areas on the moon now have a new life, with the help of a reminder that 40 years ago humans spent days exploring the surface of our neighbor in space.

For me, these photos have an additional dimension as they remind me of why I’ve always been interested in the moon. In the mid 1960s my father worked on the Apollo program, building parts for the astronauts’ backpacks, known as the Portable Life Support Systems (PLSS).  At the end of each lunar landing mission, in order to reduce the mass launched into lunar orbit, the astronauts would toss the PLSS’ onto the lunar surface; they were left behind and quickly forgotten. However, those who built the PLSS did not forget them. Before the packs were finished and shipped off, the engineers would etch their signatures on parts of the PLSS frame. So when the packs were left on the moon, the signatures also remained as a permanent monument to their achievements. So now when I look at these amazing photos, I can’t see those backpacks in these images, future images of the sites may show them, but I do see places where my dad’s name will be found forever.

This photo from the Apollo 17 mission shows the Portable Life Support Systems
backpack that Noah’s father worked on in the foreground. (NASA

LRO is an important mission for lunar scientists for many reasons. For me one of the most important reasons is that we’ll address many science questions that we’ve come up with in the 40 years since Apollo 11. How many craters have formed on the moon in the last 40 years? How deep are all those craters? LRO data will also help us plan for sending humans back to the moon, we’ll be able to find the safe and scientifically interesting places where humans can explore. So for the next decade or so, we will turn to data from LRO to select the places we want to send astronauts to for long periods of time. If I can’t be one of those astronauts, hopefully I’ll be able use the data from LRO to help train the astronauts that will go there. While the Apollo missions might have been for my parents’ generation, LRO is also for my generation, and for the generations that will follow. And maybe, one day, I’ll be able to get my name onto the lunar surface too!

Noah Petro, lunar geologist

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!

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!