Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

GRAIL Space Mission Will Paint a Fuller Picture of the Moon

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

GRAIL Space Mission Will Paint a Fuller Picture of the Moon

Article excerpt

NASA's GRAIL mission, which launched Saturday, will plumb the depths of the moon by measuring its gravity field. It should reveal much about the moon's formation and evolution.

Luna, meet the GRAIL twins.

NASA's GRAIL mission to study the interior of the moon lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center at 9:09:32 Eastern Daylight Time on Saturday - marking the first time in the history of solar-system exploration that a space probe has been dedicated to plumbing the depths of a planetary interior.

The $496 million mission relies on a pair of identical orbiters that will swing, single-file, around the moon's poles for some 82 days gathering exquisitely precise measurements of the moon's gravity field. (GRAIL stands for Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory.)

These measurements will fill yawning gaps in the portrait of the lunar interior researchers have painted so far, according to Maria Zuber, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and GRAIL's lead scientist.

The structure that lies beneath a planetary crust speaks volumes about its formation and evolution - a story that surface features can only partially tell.

With no internal geological processes vigorous enough to continually renew its surface, as happens on Earth, "the moon is a fantastic body in terms of learning about early planets," Dr. Zuber says. "It's nearby, it's accessible, and it preserves the record of what early planets were like."

Since the dawn of the Space Age, more than 100 missions have gathered data on the moon's surface. These missions have yielded important insights into the moon's geophysical history. So have experiments Apollo astronauts left on the lunar surface and the rocks they returned to Earth.

GRAIL will provide information that will allow planetary scientists to weave these other lines of evidence into a deeper, more complete story.

"In the next five years we're really going to rewrite the book in our understanding of the early planets," Zuber says.

To make their measurements, the mission's twins will use radio signals to continuously measure the distance between them and how that distance changes with the density of the portion of the moon directly beneath them. …

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