NASA's upcoming GRAIL mission will provide new information about how the moon formed and will allow students to take their own pictures of its surface, panelists announced at a news conference at NASA headquarters in Washington on Thursday.
GRAIL (the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory) will send two spacecraft to the moon, most likely next month. The 42-day launch window begins September 8, GRAIL project manager David Lehman said. Those working on the project at Kennedy Space Center added extra shifts to get the spacecraft secured ahead of Hurricane Irene's landfall, Lehman said.
The two spacecraft will be launched in the same housing, which will separate. They will enter synchronized orbits in January, principal investigator Maria Zuber said. The slow trip saves energy. Once in orbit, their speeds will increase when they pass over formations on the moon's surface, allowing scientists to measure those formations based on the distance between the two spacecraft.
The project aims to study how the moon formed, its interior composition and why the side seen from Earth looks so different from the "far side," which isn't as dark because of lava flows, Zuber said.
"Clearly we don't understand what is happening inside the moon," she said.
GRAIL is also partnering with Sally Ride Science to set up "MoonKAM," an educational program. Teachers will be able to register their classes and allow their students to explore specific regions of the moon in detail through pictures taken by the spacecraft.
"MoonKAM will serve as eyes on the moon," said Leesa Hubbard, teacher in residence at the Sally Ride Center in San Diego.
Hubbard said undergraduates at the University of San Diego will serve as "a link," passing the images through the MoonKAM website to middle school students around the world. The students will be able to select their own "target areas" of the moon's surface to capture on camera.
"You never know what a student will be inspired to do with those images that are their very own," Hubbard said.