NASA's Lunar Orbiter on Track for June Launch

NASA?sLunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is on track for its scheduled June 17 launch andits mission to gather more information about the moon?s poles and scout outsafe landing sites for man?s return to the lunar surface.

The lunarorbiter is NASA's vanguard mission for the agency's plan to return humans tothe moon by 2020 aboard its new Orion spacecraft and Altair lunar landers. Itwill launch along with its partner, Lunar Crater Observation and SensingSatellite (LCROSS)which will slam into the moon's surface as part of a hunt for water ice.

LRO'slaunch has been delayedseveral times due to a crowded launch schedule, but is finally scheduled totake off next month aboard an aboard an Atlas V rocket.

Using asuite of seven instruments, LRO will help identify safe landing sites forfuture human explorers, locate potential resources, characterize the radiationenvironment and test new technology. LCROSS will seek a definitive answer aboutthe presence of water ice in permanently shaded areas of the lunar poles.

"Thesetwo missions will provide exciting new information about the moon, our nearestneighbor," said Doug Cooke, associate administrator of NASA's ExplorationSystems Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C. "Imaging will showdramatic landscapes and areas of interest down to one-meter resolution. Thedata also will provide information about potential new uses of the moon."

LRO'sinstruments will help scientists compile high resolution, three-dimensionalmaps of the lunar surface and also survey it in the far ultraviolet spectrum.

While theApollo missions provided detailed maps of the moon's equatorial regions, goodmaps of the poles are lacking, said Craig Tooley, LRO project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

"Wehave much better maps of mars than we have of our own moon's polar regions,"he said.

The satellite'sinstruments will help explain how the lunar radiation environment mayaffect humans and measure radiation absorption with a plastic that is likehuman tissue.

The probe'sinstruments will also allow scientists to explore the moon's deepest craters,look beneath its surface for clues to the location of water ice, and identifyand explore both permanently lit and permanently shadowed regions.

"LROis an amazingly sophisticated spacecraft," Tooley said. "Its suite ofinstruments will work in concert to send us data in areas where we've beenhungry for information for years."

A NASAradar aboard India's Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft has alreadytaken a glimpse inside the dark craters.

LCROSS willuse the second stage Atlas Centaur rocket in a completely new way: The LCROSSCentaur will journey with the spacecraft for four months and be guided toan impact in a permanently shadowed crater at one of the moon's poles.

Theresulting debris plume is expected to rise more than six miles. It presents adynamic observation target for LCROSS as well as a network of ground-basedtelescopes, LRO, and possibly the Hubble Space Telescope.

Observerswill search for evidence of water ice by examining the plume in directsunlight.

LCROSS alsowill increase knowledge of the mineralogical makeup of some of the remote polarcraters that sunlight never reaches.

"Welook forward to engaging a wide cross section of the public in LCROSS'spectacular arrival at the moon and search for water ice," said LCROSSProject Manager Dan Andrews of NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. "It's possible we'll learn the answer to what is increasingly one of planetaryscience's most intriguing questions."

LRO willspend at least one year in low polar orbit around the moon, collecting detailedinformation for exploration purposes before being transferred to NASA's ScienceMission Directorate to continue collecting additional scientific data.

The totalcost of the entire mission, including launch delays, is $504 million, NASAofficials said.

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