Environment & Science

JPL's instruments on GRAIL spacecraft near lunar rendezvous


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In the legend of King Arthur – and in Monty Python – noble knights set off in search of the one true Holy Grail. On New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, a different sort of GRAIL will go out in search of a different treasure: information about earth’s moon.

NASA calls the mission of its GRAIL - the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory – “a journey to the center of the moon.” A pair of small box-shaped solar-powered spacecraft will fly tandem orbits, mapping the moon’s gravity field.

GRAIL’s principal investigator Maria Zuber says humans have sent more than a hundred missions to the moon - and have brought back hundreds of pounds of rocks and soil.

"And you might think that given all of these observations, that we would tend know what there is to know about the moon," says Zuber. "And of course, that’s not the case."

Scientists will combine the gravity map from their GRAIL research with information they already have about the surface and magnetic structure of the moon. The information will allow them to take a long-distance peek under the lunar surface. They also hope to better understand why the backside of the moon is so different from the side we see.

Zuber says the GRAIL spacecraft also carry four "moonKAMs", designed for middle school students to conduct their own research.

"Students in collaboration with their teachers will be able to look at the trajectory of where the two space craft are," says Zuber. "And when their school’s turn comes up, they will be able to target images and take their own images of the moon for their school."

America’s first female astronaut, Sally Ride, supervises the moonKAM project. More than 2,100 schools have already signed up, but there’s still room for a few more.