Once operational Crew Dragon missions are underway for NASA, SpaceX will launch the private mission on a journey to circumnavigate the moon and return to Earth. Lift-off will be from Kennedy Space Center’s historic Pad 39A near Cape Canaveral – the same launch pad used by the Apollo program for its lunar missions. This presents an opportunity for humans to return to deep space for the first time in 45 years and they will travel faster and further into the Solar System than any before them.
When they learned through a Usenet group that former NASA employee Nancy Evans might have both the tapes and the super-rare Ampex FR-900 drives needed to read them, they jumped into action. They drove to Los Angeles, where the refrigerator-sized drives were being stored in a backyard shed surrounded by chickens. At the same time, they retrieved the tapes from a storage unit in nearby Moorpark, and things gradually began to take shape. Funding the project out of pocket at first, they were consumed with figuring out how to release the images trapped in the tapes.
The resulting framelets had to be individually reassembled in Photoshop. After kluging through countless engineering problems (try finding a chemical substitute for whale oil to lubricate tape heads), the LOIRP team was able to single out and reproduce the famous earthrise image. This proof of concept brought the first NASA funding in 2008, and the team recently completed processing the entire tape collection.
In a four-launch scenario, the lander would precede the crew to the moon. The first two launches would be a moon injection stage followed by a lunar lander. These two vehicles would rendezvous in Earth’s orbit before the moon injection stage would send the lander ahead to the moon. The next two Falcon launches would carry a second moon injection stage and then the crew in their capsule/service module. After a similar boost in a moon-injection stage, they would meet up with the lander in lunar orbit.
The rest of the mission would be like the Apollo mission — Americans on the moon, once again taking giant leaps for mankind.
Ouliang Chang floated his lunar supercomputer idea a few weeks ago at a space conference in Pasadena, California. The plan is to bury a massive machine in a deep dark crater, on the side of the moon that’s facing away from Earth and all of its electromagnetic chatter. Nuclear-powered, it would process data for space missions and slingshot Earth’s Deep Space Network into a brand new moon-centric era.
Clearly, the business of dreaming up supercomputers in space is not for those who think small.
GRAIL’s two probes, named Ebb and Flow by schoolchildren in a NASA competition, were launched in September 2011 (see ‘Twins to Probe Moon’s Heart’). The first probe began orbiting the Moon on 31 December 2011, with the second joining the next day. By March, they had begun detailed mapping. The two spacecraft exchange radio signals, recording fluctuations in their relative positions that are then used to reveal tiny accelerations and decelerations caused by variations in the Moon’s gravitational field. The average altitude of the primary mission was 55 kilometres — much lower than the orbit used by the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), a similar gravity-mapping mission for Earth that has to fly higher to avoid atmospheric friction. Occasionally, the GRAIL operations team brought the craft lower than 20 kilometres to further improve the resolution of the data. “Nothing beats flying low,” says Zuber.
NASA’s twin Grail probes are designed to map the moon’s gravity field like no other spacecraft before. The $496 million mission will use the ultra-precise moon gravity maps to help scientists better understand the moon’s composition and structure, as well as how the moon evolved during its formation. Learn how the Grail mission works in the SPACE.com infographic above.