NASA: Two lunar satellites launched to start new moon mission

Satellites mapping landing sites for future spacecraft, and seeking evidence of water

In the first foray of NASA's long-term mission to send humans back to the moon, the agency launched two lunar satellites late this afternoon.

The satellites -- the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite -- lifted off together on top of an Atlas V rocket at 5:32 p.m. EDT today.

In about two minutes, the rocket was more than 11 miles above the Earth.

As the rocket was blasting off from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, an agency spokesman called it "NASA's first step in a lasting return to the moon."

NASA is hoping not only to return astronauts to the moon, but also to build a lunar outpost there by 2020. The plan includes the use of next-generation robots and machines to help prepare a landing area, as well as a base where humans can live once they arrive.

NASA scientists are hoping the two satellites can provide them with new information about the moon.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is designed to orbit around the moon and will use seven onboard instruments to create high-resolution, three-dimensional maps of the its surface. The satellite, which will orbit 50-kilometers above the moon's surface, is also expected to study how the moon's radiation would affect humans. It's also designed to send back information about potential landing sites for a spacecraft.

The Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite is designed to help scientists search for evidence of water on the moon. The satellite will send an empty section of itself on a collision course with a lunar crater that is permanently in the shade. According to NASA, the impact should kick up surface material that scientists can study in an effort to find evidence of water.

At a later point in its mission, the satellite itself will collide with the moon for another phase of study.

Whether NASA actually will go ahead with a human mission to the moon largely depends on the agency's budget.

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama called for an independent review of NASA's human space flight activities. Looking at possible alternatives to programs already in the pipeline, the review is geared toward making sure the country's human space flight program remains "safe, innovative and affordable" after the space shuttle fleet is retired, NASA said.

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