Thursday, November 29, 2007

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

This week, I am up at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland for a project science meeting for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). LRO is our first step toward fulfilling the Vision, that is, gaining a foothold on the Moon and using it as a stepping stone toward explanding outward.

LRO is carrying seven instruments on board to look for water, understand the radiation environment, and acquire high-resolution information on topography, temperature, roughness, slopes, and imagery to characterize potential landing sites. At this point, the instruments are all built and undergoing individual acoustic, vibrational, and thermal vacuum testing. After they have been individually tested, they will be delivered to the spacecraft integrations center in the next two months. Then they will be integrated onto the spacecraft body and the whole thing will tested together.

LRO is scheduled for launch in 2008 on an Atlas V 401 rocket. No time to delay ops concepts or calibration for the cruise phase, as LRO takes a direct flight to the Moon in four days. The spaceraft spends a year in a circular polar orbit approximately 50 km above the Moon's surface, closer than any other lunar mission. During this time, it will be making global maps and acquiring observations for ESMD that they need to start planning for landing sites. After a year, control of the spacecraft will be turned over to science and while the spacecraft is still functional it will be used for science observations, possibly including a change of orbit to a more fuel-efficient elliptical orbit.

The LPRP at MSFC (where I work) is the program management office for LRO, Goddard manages the spacecraft, like integration and operations, and the seven instruments onboard all have individual principal investigators (PIs) and science teams. This makes LRO a much different flavor of space mission than, say, the Mars Exploration Rovers where we have a single PI and one coherent team. So, the project science meeting has been great for me to meet the team members (though I already know many of them of course), meet the management, and get instrument updates. The team spent a lot of time here discussing operations scenarios for when we actually get up there. There are some interesting ways of coordinating observations among instruments to make a richer science story than just simply leaving instruments switched on on a nadir-pointing orbit. But they take some time and agreement. We also spent some time thinking about how to co-register all the data together and tie it to the new reference frame that LOLA, the laser altimeter on LRO, will provide.

It definitely got me psyched for this mission, which we hope will be the first of many robotic missions to the Moon! But wait, why do we need LRO when there are three other international lunar orbiters, anyway? Next post, I'll tell you.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Returning to the Moon

Hi everyone, sorry for the extended hiatus. I took a new job at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center at the end of the summer and moved to Huntsville, AL in October. Wow! I can hardly believe it myself.

Initially, I'm here to support the Lunar Precursor Robotics Program. We'll have a new website soon that I'll point you to. We are currently serving as a conduit to understand what data the engineers need to get back to the Moon, and come up with some solutions to get them those data. We are the managers for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) missions, due to launch next year and return gobs of new data that will help address some engineering design issues (as well as new science of course). We are also developing an application called Lunar Mapping and Modeling, which will rapidly deliver these great new data to the users (engineers and scientists). I'm also here as a resource to other MSFC lunar activities, of which there are surprisingly many - the lunar impact monitoring group, the lunar simulant development effort, lunar dust and its effects work, and an interesting partnership with students in the UAH Mech E program to spend a semester designing a lunar lander mission. As if all that weren't enough, I'll also be working to build a lunar & planetary science group to do some great science in partnership with the opportunities afforded by exploration activities. You all know that the Moon is near and dear to my heart, so this is a very exciting opportunity for me to combine lunar science with my spacecraft experience and boundless enthusiasm to move lunar exploration forward!

Huntsville, AL is a completely pleasant community. It is powered by the Army's missile systems and Marshall's rocket propulsion, so it is full of aerospace industry branches, software and electronics companies, and other high-tech employers. It is a small town but populated by international and well-educated people. I'm already a member of a great NPR radio affiliate, the Huntsville Museum of Art, the Huntsville Botanical Gardens, a fantastic little pottery studio, and the amazing U.S. Space and Rocket Center (no, I never went to Space Camp). The photo above is the first one I took in Huntsville. It's a Saturn V rocket (replica) and the Moon. How cool is that ?! We also have a real Saturn V, but it is now exclosed in a protected building at the lower right of this photo. One of the greatest things about moving here is that the whole community is jazzed about the space program and going to the moon. When I meed people and tell them I am a lunar scientist, they are wowed and happy that I am here helping the program. It's pretty amazing support for me, my science, and my career actually. Let's go to the Moon!!!!!!!