Today is a big day for NASA as it plans to launch not one, but two separate probes atop an Atlas rocket. Destination: the Moon, where the Gravity Recovery and Internal Laboratory (GRAIL) probes will undertake a new mission that only the latest in scientific advancements can allow: determine the internal structure of the Moon by way of mapping its gravity. If all goes according to plan, the rocket will launch at 8:37 or 9:16am EDT.
For NASA, this mission is yet another signal that there is a resurgence of interest in our nearest celestial neighbor.
The new-found interest in the Moon, which has gone largely ignored since the end of Apollo, can be traced back in 2004 when then-president George W, Bush announced the Constellation Program, whose goal was to return Americans to the Moon. However, with the advent of the Obama Administration and a new focus for NASA, the Moon was taken off the radar as a possible place to go but, in the years between the announcement and killing of Constellation, much scientific thought went into figuring out ways to learn about the Moon that would have been impossible in the Apollo years.
In 2009, there was the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) project, whose mission was to determine whether there was water below ground in larger amounts than on the lunar surface by crashing a probe into the Moon. At the time, the idea was that, if water was found (which it was), a great logistical problem of transporting water to the Mon for use in lunar bases could be alleviated to a great degree.
That same year, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission entered into lunar orbit to help pave the way for man’s return to the Moon by scouting out possible landing sites. Unfortunately, President Obama killed the Constellation Program, and with it, future manned Moon missions. However, the satellite continued to function, snapping pictures as it went and offering undeniable proof that America went to the Moon with Apollo.
Now, there’s GRAIL.
In the mission, there are several major objectives NASA wants to accomplish and questions it wants to answer. Chief among them are the following: what is the Moon’s internal structure and what is it made from? Determine the size of the lunar core. Gain understanding of how the Moon’s surface came to be as it appears today. Understand the asymmetrical thermal properties of the Moon. answer the question of why the Moon’s gravity is not the same across its surface and lastly, determine the sub-surface structure of craters. .
Now, if the mission is scrubbed today for whatever reason, there will be several launch opportunities over the next month and a half, which almost ensure that, one day or another, GRAIL will get off the ground in time.