BOULDER, Colo. -- NASA announced Wednesday the suite of U.S. science investigators for its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) project, as well as a Russian scientist.

The U.S. Moon probe is the first spacecraft to be built as part of the Vision for Space Exploration, put into motion earlier this year by U.S. President George W. Bush. LRO is slated for a liftoff in the fall of 2008, under the auspices of NASA's Robotic Lunar Exploration Program.

The LRO underpins NASA's interest in replanting human footprints on the Moon. President Bush has called for the space agency to conduct the first extended human expedition to the lunar surface as early as 2015, but no later than the year 2020.

Not only will LRO characterize future robotic and human landing spots, the spacecraft will be equipped to inventory possible resources for human crews to "live off the land" -- in this case what's available on the crater-pocked Moon. Another key duty of the LRO is to characterize the lunar radiation environment and its impact on humans.

Lunar investigators

The six selected investigations and principal investigators (PI) for the LRO are:

n       Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA): Determines the global topography of the lunar surface at high resolution, measure landing site slopes and search for polar ices in shadowed regions. PI, David Smith, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland.

n       Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC): Acquires targeted images of the lunar surface capable of resolving small-scale features that could be landing site hazards, as well as wide-angle images at multiple wavelengths of the lunar poles to document changing illumination conditions and potential resources. PI, Mark Robinson, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.

n       Lunar Exploration Neutron Detector (LEND): Maps the flux of neutrons from the lunar surface to search for evidence of water ice and provide measurements of the space radiation environment which can be useful for future human exploration. PI, Igor Mitrofanov, Institute for Space Research, and Federal Space Agency, Moscow.

n       Diviner Lunar Radiometer Experiment: Charts the temperature of the entire lunar surface at roughly 985 feet (300 meter) horizontal scales to identify cold-traps and potential ice deposits. PI, David Paige, University of California, Los Angeles.

n       Lyman-Alpha Mapping Project (LAMP): Observes the entire lunar surface in the far ultraviolet. LAMP will search for surface ices and frosts in the polar regions and provide images of permanently shadowed regions illuminated only by starlight. PI, Alan Stern, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado.

n       Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation (CRaTER): Investigates the effect of galactic cosmic rays on tissue-equivalent plastics as a constraint on models of biological response to background space radiation. PI, Harlan Spence, Boston University, Massachusetts.

Instrumentation provided by these selected measurement investigations will be the payload of the mission scheduled to launch in October 2008.

Whole new ball game

 

"LRO will deliver measurements that will be critical to the key decisions we must make before the end of this decade," said NASA's Associate Administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, Craig Steidle.

"We are extremely excited by this innovative payload, and we are confident it will fulfill our expectations and support the Vision for Space Exploration," Steidle explained in a NASA press statement.

"LRO is a great mission, and long overdue," said Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute here. "It promises to locate any ice near the lunar poles...which will greatly advance the cause of exploration."

Stern told SPACE.com that LRO will also return scientific and engineering datasets of "stunning quality" and will revolutionize our understanding of the Moon and our ability to stage human missions there in the next decade. "LRO is the kickoff to a whole new ball game for NASA."

The LRO project is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. This space agency field center will also acquire the launch system and spacecraft, as well as perform payload accommodations, mission systems engineering and assurance duties.