2 Jan 2012

NASA probes reach moon for gravity mapping mission

3:41 pm on 2 January 2012

Two robotic probes have begun orbiting the moon with the aim of mapping the lunar interior.


Over the next two months, their orbits will be tweaked until they are flying in formation low over the lunar poles.

As the spacecraft fly over denser regions of the moon, they will speed up slightly in response to the extra gravitational tugs.

By constantly measuring changes in the distance between the two craft, scientists can create a gravity map of the moon.

The changes in speed will be as subtle as a fraction of a micron per second. A micron is about the width of a red blood cell.

Scientisis say the data can be used to model what is inside the moon.

The data will be used to model the moon's interior, a key piece of information still missing despite more than 100 previous missions to the moon, including six human expeditions during NASA's 1969-1972 Apollo program.

Scientists believe the moon formed when an object about the size of Mars smashed into Earth shortly after the formation of the solar system about 4.5 billion years ago. But questions remain about how the moon evolved.

One longstanding question is why the far side of the moon is so different from the side that permanently faces Earth. The near side is filled with large, dark plains formed by ancient volcanic eruptions, while the far side is virtually all highlands.

The mission is scheduled to last 82 days, but if the solar-powered probes, built by Lockheed Martin Corp, survive beyond the next lunar eclipse in June, the $496 million mission could be extended for a more detailed mapping survey.