Wednesday, March 21, 2012

NASA spacecraft puts moon in new focus


After buzzing around the moon for two years, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has beamed more than 192 terabytes of data back to its home planet — more than all the printed information contained in the U.S. Library of Congress, says project scientist Richard Vondrak of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Among those data are 4 billion measurements made by the orbiter’s laser altimeter, which allowed scientists to construct a detailed elevation map of the moon’s pockmarked surface. An animation of the moon’s rotation shows the orbiter’s data compared with maps made in 2005 by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Unified Lunar Control Network. Scientists presented the animation during a conference held on June 21. “We go from a relatively fuzzy moon that kind of looks out of focus, to one that’s sharp and very well-defined,” says NASA’s Michael Wargo, chief lunar scientist for exploration.

Flying approximately 50 kilometers above the cratered world, the 1,900-kilogram spacecraft has helped illuminate Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor by studying its features, temperature, composition and elusive dark side. Using the data sent back home, scientists have identified locations likely to hold frozen water ice — shaded regions that never see sunlight and which are among the coldest places in the solar system — as well as sunnier spots that could one day host a solar-powered moon base.


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