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NASA’s Return To The Moon has begun…

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Earlier today, something very, very important happened. The world changed – not in a huge way, not in a way that shook houses, or knocked plates off shelves, or made dogs howl in the street. In fact, unless you were a space geek, watching it live online, you wouldn’t have realised anything was happening at all. It wasn’t front page news for papers and magazines, it wasn’t the lead story on Sky News or CNN, but earlier today, just short of 40 years after Armstrong and Aldrin stepped onto its dusty surface, a quarter of a million miles away, NASA finally Returned to the Moon.

Not with people. That won’t happen for another decade, probably a decade and a half I reckon. Today NASA returned to the Moon with cameras, computers and instruments packed neatly and lovingly into a pair of unmanned spacecraft – LRO and LCROSS – that will, together, help us get to know the Moon well enough to begin planning how to stage the manned missions NASA is wanting to stage in the next decade and beyond.

The probes were launched last week, onboard a single, powerful rocket, and since then have been travelling to the Moon. Earlier today the LRO spacecraft – essentially a lunar version of the “spy satellite” like Mars Reconaissance Orbiter that has, with its incredibly high resolution HiRISE camera, revolutionised our view of Mars by allowing us to see objects on its surface just a metre across – went into orbit around the Moon, and now its mission scientists can look forward to seeing the Moon’s surface in almost unbelievable detail when the probe’s cameras are calibrated and turned on the Moon at the beginning of next month.

How good will LRO’s pictures be? Well, with a resolution of 50cm, the cameras will, it is confidently predicted, be able to spot Apollo hardware standing on the Moon’s surface, such as the descent stages of the Apollo lunar modules, and even the famous lunar rovers used on the last three Apollo missions…!

LRO went into lunar orbit this morning, to great cheers and applause from its understandably relieved team. A few hours later, the LCROSS spacecraft – which is designed to crash into the Moon later this year, in the hope of detecting deposits of water ice beneath its surface – began its first fly-by of the Moon, and the event was shown live on the internet, with live streaming video being beamed back by the spacecraft and shown on the web in realtime for all to see.

I’m not sure how many people watched it, but I hope lots did, because it was a fantastic event. Ok, so the picture quality was a bit poor, but that’s not the point. The point is that anyone who wanted to could go online and essentially see the Moon through the spacecraft’s point of view, as if they riding on the back of it. Here’s the view we were treated to…

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On the left was the live feed from LCROSS, on the right a computer simulation showing the spacecraft’s position relative to the Moon. That meant we were able to follow the spacecraft’s rolling, pitching and yawing as it maneouvred whilst taking pictures, which was pretty cool. The view wasn’t spectacular, the Moon was a bit blurry, a bit fuzzy and over-exposed…

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… but again, that wasn’t the point. The point was we were seeing the Moon LIVE, from a spacecraft flying around it!

… just like the Apollo crews did, all those years ago.

So, that’s it. NASA has finally, after all the plans and proposals, reviews and recommendations, hopes and dreams, returned to the Moon. There is actually, after all the hot air and fancy talk, equipment in orbit around the Moon that is designed to help NASA eventually send people back to the Moon to continue the work of the Apollo astronauts.

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3 Responses

  1. “…just short of 40 years after Armstrong and Aldrin stepped onto its dusty surface, a quarter of a million miles away, NASA finally Returned to the Moon.”

    Though it doesn’t, strictly speaking, say it I think a lot of readers will be mislead by that into thinking that NASA hasn’t been to the Moon since the Apollo program.

    That’s pretty close to true but the Clementine mission (1994 joint NASA/military) deserves a mention, not least because of its supposed discovery of water ice near the Moon’s south pole – a not-insignificant speculation feeding in to the design of the LCROSS mission.

    Apart from lunar slingshots (e.g., into heliocentric orbits – what’s the name of that pair of solar observation spacecraft?), have there been any other NASA lunar missions since Apollo? I can’t think of any.

  2. Hello is this a peaceful Mission? Or Military in research? I know that we havn’t return to the moon since 1969 and we put our flag there Iv’e seen the the Lunar modules and rocks in museums I’ve heard NASA discussions on the possibilities of a return mission to the moon. I hope that we can peacefully gain a new adventure into space exploration but not a destructive one like shooting a missle at the south polar region what about some of the space debris and repercussions of seismic activity a concern citizen of the universe.

  3. OK, now live transmissions of the impact = suspect.
    Why are all the pictures they transmits still at 1970 quality, that too is suspect.

    Can they invest in some HD. Ya it is more bandwidth, but hey it is also more information. Or maybe they have it but they don;t show it to the public. = WRONG!

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