Moon Countdown: Hours Until 1st NASA Probe Arrives

NASA is counting down the seconds until its twin spacecraft bound for the moon make back-to-back arrivals over the New Year's weekend.

The washing machine-size probes have been cruising independently toward their destination since launching in September aboard the same rocket on a mission to measure lunar gravity.

Approaching the moon from the south pole, the Grail spacecraft - short for Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory - won't land on the surface, but will survey from orbit.

On New Year's Eve, Grail-A was poised to fire its engine for more than a half hour to slow itself and get captured into orbit. Grail-B will follow suit on New Year's Day.

Deep space antennas in the California desert and Madrid will track the tricky maneuvers and feed real-time updates to ground controllers.

"The anxiety level is heightened," project manager David Lehman of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory said earlier this week.

Grail is the 110th mission to target the moon since the dawn of the Space Age including the six Apollo moon landings that put 12 astronauts on the surface. Despite the attention the moon has received, scientists don't know everything about Earth's nearest neighbor.

Why the moon is ever so slightly lopsided with the far side more mountainous than the side that always faces Earth remains a mystery. A theory put forth earlier this year suggested that Earth once had two moons that collided early in the solar system's history, producing the hummocky region.

Grail is expected to help researchers better understand why the moon is asymmetrical and how it formed by mapping the uneven lunar gravity field that will indicate what's below the surface.

"It seems that the answer is not on the surface," said chief scientist Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We think that the answer is locked in the interior."

Previous lunar missions have attempted to study the moon's gravity - which is about one-sixth Earth's pull - with mixed results. Grail is the first mission devoted to this goal.

Once in orbit, the near-identical spacecraft will spend the next two months refining their positions until they are just 34 miles above the surface and flying in formation. Data collection will begin in March.

The $496 million mission will be closely watched by schoolchildren. An effort by Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, will allow middle school students to use cameras aboard the probes to zoom in and pick out their favorite lunar spots to photograph.

Despite the latest focus on the moon, NASA won't be sending astronauts back anytime soon. The Obama administration last year nixed a lunar return in favor of landing humans on an asteroid and eventually Mars.

A jaunt to the moon - about 250,000 miles away from Earth - is usually speedy. It took the Apollo astronauts three days to zip there aboard the powerful Saturn V rocket. Since NASA wanted to economize by launching on a small rocket, it took Grail a leisurely 3 1/2 months to make the trip covering 2 1/2 million miles.

NASA's last moonshot occurred in 2009 with the launch of a pair of spacecraft - one that circled the moon and another that deliberately crashed into the surface and uncovered frozen water in one of the permanently shadowed lunar craters.

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  • by Moonhoax on Jan 1, 2012 at 11:44 PM
    If the footprints leave 2-3 inch deep imprints in the "dust", why wasn't there an enormous dust cloud from the rocket blast? Too many things don't make since from the footage either! Stands up without the use of a knee, flashes from the wires they used to suspend the astronauts. Why didn't the moon rover "float" over bumps?
  • by pete Location: grifton on Jan 1, 2012 at 05:40 AM
    You can watch that moon hoax on you why haven't you heard anything lately about the mar's rover. why has nasa suddenly quit their space program? try typing "NIBIRU" in your search engine.maybe even wormwood in your bible.
  • by Lavon Location: Moon on Dec 31, 2011 at 07:49 PM
    Happy New Years! Wish you could be here. Viva Obama.
    • reply
      by obamanot on Jan 1, 2012 at 08:12 AM in reply to Lavon
      We know your way,way out there somewhere along side pinnochiobama, levitra.
  • by rodney Location: jamesville, nc on Dec 31, 2011 at 03:40 PM
    I love the way we are supposed to believe that they put a man on the moon in the 60s and now they are anxious about sending a probe up there 50 years later. If we had the ability to go to the moon in the 60s, it should be routine today. Conclusion: the moon landing was a hoax.
    • reply
      by obamanot on Dec 31, 2011 at 05:13 PM in reply to rodney
      I love when I dig in the dirt that when I strip off the the grass,strip off the topsoil,strip off the clay,get passed 15 feet of sand then have another layer of dirt,clay,some times petrafied trees and coral and very big fish scales.Seen it too many times.Then go down 10 to 20 more feet and the same thing is down there.Conclusion:Most dont believe in the great flood.It has happened more than once.I believe this cause I have seen things that I have dug up!Anway rodney until you can prove your hypothesis on your unconcluded rhetoric your post is a hoax!
      • reply
        by My Grandmother... on Dec 31, 2011 at 06:29 PM in reply to obamanot
        ...Never believed that we went to the moon. She said it was just a TV program, just like the Honeymooners. (without the honey)
        • reply
          by obamanot on Dec 31, 2011 at 07:00 PM in reply to My Grandmother...
          Well why did she bury here dead?
    • reply
      by 40some on Dec 31, 2011 at 05:30 PM in reply to rodney
      Bush blew up the WTC. Elvis, Micheal Jackson, and Anna Nicole are all living on a private island somewhere as guests of Howard Hughes. To bad Elvis still isn't talking to Micheal for marrying his daughter.
  • by 40some on Dec 31, 2011 at 12:54 PM
    So what! Balance the budget and then let's worry about putting a man on Mars. Lack of priorities.
  • by GreatGreatgrandPa on Dec 31, 2011 at 04:54 AM
    Have'nt heard moon crickets sing in 90 years.
    • reply
      by Funny Colloquialism on Dec 31, 2011 at 06:32 AM in reply to GreatGreatgrandPa
      I love the way commentors test the Mods of this board.
      • reply
        by GreatGreatgrandPa on Dec 31, 2011 at 01:04 PM in reply to Funny Colloquialism
        They are too young to know anthing of the world and life.PS,obamanot.
        • reply
          by 40some on Dec 31, 2011 at 05:27 PM in reply to GreatGreatgrandPa
          Grandpa, what's a "moon cricket"?
      • reply
        by GreatGreatgrandPa on Dec 31, 2011 at 06:33 PM in reply to Funny Colloquialism
        Why did'nt you just say slang?The Mods don't know the definition of that word.Heck they can't even pronounce it!.PS,obamanot!
    • reply
      by GreatGreatgrandPa on Dec 31, 2011 at 05:54 PM in reply to GreatGreatgrandPa
      40some@8:27 it is GreatGreatgrandPa,not hey grandpa whats for supper!This aint HEE HAW!
      • reply
        by 40some on Jan 1, 2012 at 10:01 AM in reply to GreatGreatgrandPa
        It sure "ain't". You old enough to be my great-great? Cause all of mine died before I was born, and the greats went away when I was in my single digits. Glad to have you around...

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