The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

On 18 June 2009 the Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter lifted off from SLC-41 at Cape Canaveral on an United Launch Alliance Atlas V.  About four days later it entered orbit around the Moon on it’s mission to collect data and map the Moon’s surface in far greater detail than ever before. The mission has seven complex instruments on board that contribute to the nearly 2 ton weight of the spacecraft. The initial mission was planned for just one year but has been extended numerous times. Two of the main objectives of the mission were to map the surface of the Moon to help look for possible future landing sites as well as look for water. LRO gained notoriety for imaging the various Apollo landing sites which helped debunk the nonsense that conspiracy theorists continually bring up. It’s a busy spacecraft that provides up to 155 GB of data per day from its instruments that are helping us to learn more and more about the Moon.

Launch of Atlas AV-020 LRO-LCROSS, June 18, 2009
The launch of the LRO (Credit: ULA)

The current location of the LRO is visible on this website which tracks the spacecraft as it orbits the Moon. On board the LRO are seven instruments. One of them is called CRaTER which stands for, Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation. This instrument looks at the effects that cosmic radiation might have on human tissue. It contains some plastic that emulates human tissue, rather than real human tissue. The aim of the development of this instrument was to build a light weight and low cost experiment that would be able to provide useful measurements of LET spectra and the variation over time. The next instrument is Diviner which is used to create a detailed day and night surface temperature map of the lunar surface. The data is used to try and find potential ice deposits in the polar regions and also try to derive subsurface temperatures. The instrument has been highly succcesful giving scientists unprecedented access to detailed data that is far beyond anything else available.

Th third instrument is the Lyman Alpha Mapping Project (LAMP) which is looking into the deep polar region craters to see if there’s any water. It does this through the measurement of ultra violet light and hydrogen atoms. If there are deposits of water in these deep craters then they may offer the best spot to land and build a future base, as water is critical to any endeavour we decide to use the Moon for. The instrument uses ultraviolet light and hydrogen to see in the dark using a technique called Lyman-Alpha Vision Assisstance (LAVA). The fourth instrument is the LEND instrument which is the Lunar Exploration Neutron Detector which is also used to build maps of the surface and try and find water just under the surface.

The fifth instrument is called the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA). This instrument helps build an accurate model of the lunar surface so that maps are accurate which will enable landers to land in the right place and generally make the whole experience safer. The result is a geodetic reference system created by the laser altimeter. The laser beam is split into five distinct beams with each beam scattering and the return signals get measured. This all helps to measure and determine the shape of the surface being flown over in order to improve the surface model.

The sixth instrument is the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC). This instrument is three cameras that enable the capture of high resultion imagery of the surface of the Moon. The images are captured in high resolution black and white and lower resolution for multispectral images. The resolution for the B&W cameras is 0.5m per pixel over a 5km swath and the Wide Angle Camera takes 100m per pixel images over a 60km swath.

The wide angle camera on the LROC payload (Credit: NASA)

The final instrument is called the Mini-RF project and it contains a radar instrument to map the lunar poles and help in the search for water. The instrument managed to collect some data before the it was found to be not generating enough transmitting power and has since been turned off.

The Mini-RF radar return of the polar regions (Credit: NASA)

The LRO mission continues to provide outstanding data that is going to be very useful for any future human landing on the lunar surface. This was a snap shot of what is currently happening up there as we often forget about the detailed work that is happening regarding the Moon everyday.