Lockheed Martin, NASA team for moon shot

Lockheed Martin today said it is set to design, build and operate the two spacecraft that NASA will  use to orbit the moon and let researchers at MIT create a global, high-accuracy, high-resolution lunar gravity map providing new understanding to the history and internal structure of the moon - from crust to core. 

The $375 million, called the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) will put two separate satellites into orbit around the moon to precisely map variations in the moon's gravitational pull.  The satellites will use Ka-band ranging instruments to send signals between one another, and then relay the data back to Earth to be analyzed, NASA said.  Ka-band satellites support downloads up to 30M bit/sec for businesses and 2M bit/sec uploads. This is a vast improvement over the previous technology called Ku-band, which supported 1.5M bit/sec broadcast downloads but very little capacity for return traffic.

Scientists will examine the minute differences in distance the signals traveled between spacecraft. This will give unprecedented insight into the gravitational changes over the entire moon. These changes will reveal differences in density of the moon's crust and mantle, and can be used to answer fundamental questions about the moon's internal structure and its history of collisions with asteroids, NASA said in a statement.

The mission's technology is a direct spinoff from the current Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) mission, which has been mapping Earth's gravitational field since 2002. GRAIL measurements of the gravitational field will come from very precise monitoring of changes in the distance between the two satellites, NASA said. The resulting measurements will map the moon's gravitational field up to 1,000 times more accurately than any previous mapping, NASA said.

The main new technology needed to make GRAIL possible was a way to calibrate the timing of the satellites accurately, NASA said. The Earth-orbiting GRACE satellites use the GPS satellite navigation system, but there is no such system at the moon. Instead, the team adapted a technique that involves precise monitoring of radio signals originally designed for a different purpose for another planetary mission in development, named Juno.

The same technology could be applied to future missions to map the gravitational fields of other interesting worlds such as Mars, where it could reveal the exchange of carbon dioxide between the polar caps and atmosphere or the movement of flowing subsurface water, NASA said.The lunar gravity information will let any future manned or unmanned missions to land on the moon. Such data will be used to program the descent to the surface to avoid a crash landing and will also help target desirable landing sites, NASA said.

 The mission's technology could eventually be used to explore other interesting worlds such as Mars. NASA is looking to learn all it can about the moon. For example, such fundamental questions as whether or not the moon has a separate, differentiated core, as Earth does, are unknown, NASA said. GRAIL should also reveal details about lunar history, including the relative timing and effects of the myriads of huge impacts that created the craters and basins seen on the surface today.

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