NASA shakes, bakes, rattles and blasts lunar spaceship

NASA today said its spaceship successfully completed a series of stress-inducing tests to ensure it can make the rugged flight to the moon where it is expected to map the lunar surface in preparation for manned moon missions planned to take off by 2020.

First off, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter was spun and vibrated to determine the spacecraft's center of gravity and characteristics of its rotation. During vibration testing, engineers checked the structural integrity of the lunar probe aboard a large, shaking table that simulated the rigorous ride the orbiter will meet during liftoff aboard an Atlas rocket, NASA said.

But that's just the beginning, the orbiter will soon undergo four days of acoustics testing during which the spacecraft is placed near massive, multistory, wall-sized speakers that simulate the noise-induced vibrations of launch. Following acoustics testing, the spacecraft will undergo a daylong test that simulates the orbiter's separation from the rocket during launch.

Then in late August, NASA said the spacecraft will begin five weeks of thermal vacuum testing, which duplicates the extreme hot, cold and airless conditions of space. During the test, engineers will operate the orbiter and conduct simulated flight operations while the spacecraft is subjected to the extreme temperature cycles of the lunar environment, NASA said.

For its mission the LRO will use seven instruments to develop highly detailed maps of the lunar surface that provide data about lunar topography, surface temperature, lighting conditions, mineralogical composition, and abundance of natural resources. Information from the robotic spacecraft will be used to select safe landing sites and check out potential locations for future manned missions to the moon. The Lyman-Alpha Mapping Project (LAMP) was built and developed at the Southwest Research Institute. It will map the entire lunar surface in the far ultraviolet spectrum and search for surface ice and frost in the polar regions. It will provide images of permanently shadowed regions that are illuminated only by starlight, NASA stated.

The spacecraft also will provide information about the lunar radiation environment through the Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects, or CRaTER which was built and developed by Boston University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. CRaTER will characterize the lunar radiation environment, allowing scientists to determine potential impacts to astronauts and other life, NASA said.

It is expected that the LRO will by the end of the year make its way to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for final launch preparations. The orbiter and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, a mission to smack into the moon in search of water ice, are scheduled to launch atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida sometime between Feb. 27, 2009 and the end of March 2009, NASA said..

A similar spaceship, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter last year sent back high-resolution images of about 30 proposed landing sites for the Mars Science Laboratory, a mission launching in 2009 to deploy a long-distance rover carrying sophisticated science instruments on Mars.

NASA also recently announced a $10 million project to researchers who want to do research on the moon. The agency's Lunar Science Institute will handle the research proposals which should address the institute's core interests: science of the moon including objectives that meet NASA's future lunar exploration needs. NASA anticipates making five to seven awards, including one focused on exploration objectives.

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