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NASA’s Moon Twins Going Their Own Way

Written by DC Agle
Jet Propulsion Laboratory

NASA - National Aeronautics and Space AdministrationPasadena, CA – NASA’s Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL)-B spacecraft successfully executed its first flight path correction maneuver Wednesday, October 5th. The rocket burn helped refine the spacecraft’s trajectory as it travels from Earth to the moon and provides separation between itself and its mirror twin, GRAIL-A. The first burn for GRAIL-A occurred on September 30th.

“Both spacecraft are alive and with these burns, prove that they’re kicking too, as expected,” said David Lehman, GRAIL project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. “There is a lot of time and space between now and lunar orbit insertion, but everything is looking good.”

Using a precision formation-flying technique, the twin GRAIL spacecraft will map the moon's gravity field, as depicted in this artist's rendering. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Using a precision formation-flying technique, the twin GRAIL spacecraft will map the moon's gravity field, as depicted in this artist's rendering. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

GRAIL-B’s rocket burn took place on October 5th at 11:00am PDT (2:00pm EDT). The spacecraft’s main engine burned for 234 seconds and imparted a velocity change of 56.1 mph (25.1 meters per second) while expending 8.2 pounds (3.7 kilograms) of propellant. GRAIL-A’s burn on September 30th also took place at 11:00am PDT. It lasted 127 seconds and imparted a 31.3 mph (14 meters per second) velocity change on the spacecraft while expending 4 pounds (1.87 kilograms) of propellant.

These burns are designed to begin distancing GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B’s arrival times at the moon by approximately one day and to insert them onto the desired lunar approach paths.

The straight-line distance from Earth to the moon is about 250,000 miles (402,336 kilometers). It took NASA’s Apollo moon crews about three days to cover that distance. Each of the GRAIL twins is taking about 30 times that long and covering more than 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) to get there. This low-energy, high-cruise time trajectory is beneficial for mission planners and controllers, as it allows more time for spacecraft checkout. The path also provides a vital component of the spacecraft’s single science instrument, the Ultra Stable Oscillator, to be continuously powered for several months, allowing it to reach a stable operating temperature long before beginning the collection of science measurements in lunar orbit.

GRAIL-A will enter lunar orbit on New Year’s Eve, and GRAIL-B will follow the next day. When science collection begins, the spacecraft will transmit radio signals precisely defining the distance between them as they orbit the moon. Regional gravitational differences on the moon are expected to expand and contract that distance. GRAIL scientists will use these accurate measurements to define the moon’s gravity field. The data will allow mission scientists to understand what goes on below the surface of our natural satellite.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, manages the GRAIL mission. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, is home to the mission’s principal investigator, Maria Zuber. The GRAIL mission is part of the Discovery Program managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft. Launch management for the mission is the responsibility of NASA’s Launch Services Program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

More information about GRAIL is online at: www.nasa.gov/grail and http://grail.nasa.gov .

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