Get ready for America's return to the Moon this week. While NASA isn't sending astronauts back to the Moon just yet, this week's launch of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fla., will pave the way for sustained human ventures around the year 2020.
LRO is the first mission in NASA's Vision for Space Exploration-a bold plan to not only return humans to the Moon, but to travel on to Mars.
The effort to go to the Moon and Mars won't be cheap, but it will expand our knowledge of the space environment, generate new technologies with down-to-Earth applications-just as Apollo and current NASA programs are doing-plus stimulate young people to pursue science and engineering careers. Vision for Space Exploration is another segment of our nation's long-term investment in pioneering the high frontier.
LRO is being launched during the 40th anniversary era of Apollo 11, the first human landing on the Moon, which makes the mission all the more timely.
LRO mission planners want to "tag" several potential landing sites-not necessarily near the Apollo sites-locate potential resources such as building materials, water ice, and natural gas deposits, monitor solar and cosmic radiation, and test some sophisticated electronic technology.
The LRO spacecraft will be a low flyer cruising only 30 miles (50 kilometers) above the Moon. For comparisons, Apollo spacecraft orbited no lower than 60 miles (96.5 kilometers) above the lunar surface. LRO's low orbit will improve data gathering and enable the onboard camera to lens high-resolution images of landing sites as well as image Apollo hardware left on the surface for this July's Apollo 11 celebrations.
LRO, if successful, will orbit the Moon for one year.
During last week's LRO mission teleconference for members of the NASA-JPL Solar System Ambassador Program, Lora Bleacher of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, which is where LRO was built and is managed, provided a thumbnail sketch of the mission.