Space

December 5, 2012

NASA twin spacecraft create most accurate gravity map of Moon

Twin NASA probes orbiting the moon have generated the highest resolution gravity field map of any celestial body.

The new map, created by the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission, is allowing scientists to learn about the moon’s internal structure and composition in unprecedented detail. Data from the two washing machine-sized spacecraft also will provide a better understanding of how Earth and other rocky planets in the solar system formed and evolved.

The gravity field map reveals an abundance of features never before seen in detail, such as tectonic structures, volcanic landforms, basin rings, crater central peaks, and numerous simple, bowl-shaped craters. Data also show the moon’s gravity field is unlike that of any terrestrial planet in our solar system.

These are the first scientific results from the prime phase of the mission, and they are published in three papers in the journal Science.

“What this map tells us is that more than any other celestial body we know of, the moon wears its gravity field on its sleeve,” said GRAIL principal investigator Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “When we see a notable change in the gravity field, we can sync up this change with surface topography features such as craters, rilles or mountains.”

According to Zuber, the moon’s gravity field preserves the record of impact bombardment that characterized all terrestrial planetary bodies and reveals evidence for fracturing of the interior extending to the deep crust and possibly the mantle. This impact record is preserved, and now precisely measured, on the moon.

The probes revealed the bulk density of the moon’s highland crust is substantially lower than generally assumed. This low bulk crustal density agrees well with data obtained during the final Apollo lunar missions in early 1970s, indicating that local samples returned by astronauts are indicative of global processes.

“With our new crustal bulk density determination, we find that the average thickness of the moon’s crust is between 21 and 27 miles (34 and 43 kilometers), which is about 6 to 12 miles (10 to 20 kilometers) thinner than previously thought.” said GRAIL co-investigator Mark Wieczorek of the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris. “With this crustal thickness, the bulk composition of the moon is similar to that of Earth. This supports models where the moon is derived from Earth materials that were ejected during a giant impact event early in solar system history.”

The map was created by the spacecraft transmitting radio signals to define precisely the distance between them as they orbit the moon in formation. As they fly over areas of greater and lesser gravity caused by both visible features, such as mountains and craters, and masses hidden beneath the lunar surface, the distance between the two spacecraft will change slightly.

“We used gradients of the gravity field in order to highlight smaller and narrower structures than could be seen in previous datasets,” said Jeff Andrews-Hanna, a GRAIL guest scientist with the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. “This data revealed a population of long, linear, gravity anomalies, with lengths of hundreds of kilometers, crisscrossing the surface. These linear gravity anomalies indicate the presence of dikes, or long, thin, vertical bodies of solidified magma in the subsurface. The dikes are among the oldest features on the moon, and understanding them will tell us about its early history.”

While results from the primary science mission are just beginning to be released, the collection of gravity science by the lunar twins continues. GRAIL’s extended mission science phase began Aug. 30 and will conclude Dec. 17. As the end of mission nears, the spacecraft will operate at lower orbital altitudes above the moon.

When launched in September 2011, the probes were named GRAIL A and B. They were renamed Ebb and Flow in January by elementary students in Bozeman, Mont., in a nationwide contest. Ebb and Flow were placed in a near-polar, near-circular orbit at an altitude of approximately 34 miles (55 kilometers) on Dec. 31, 2011, and Jan. 1, 2012.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. GRAIL is part of the Discovery Program managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver built the spacecraft.

 

To view the lunar gravity map, visit http://bit.ly/grailtour.

 




All of this week's top headlines to your email every Friday.


 
 

 

Headlines November 24, 2014

News: Hagel said to be stepping down as defense chief under pressure - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is stepping down under pressure, the first cabinet-level casualty of President Obama’s Democratic majority in the Senate and a beleaguered national security team that has struggled to stay ahead of an onslaught of global crises. Afghan mission for U.S....
 
 

News Briefs November 24, 2014

Fog forces five U.S. choppers to land in Polish field Officials say that that fog forced five U.S. Army helicopters to make an emergency landing in a Polish field and spend the night there, the second such incident since September. The U.S. Army said 15 soldiers were moving equipment to their base in Germany Nov....
 
 
Air Force photograph by Samuel King Jr.

Navy’s first F-35C squadron surpasses 1,000 flight hours

Air Force photograph by Samuel King Jr. An F-35C Lightning II aircraft piloted by Lt. Cmdr. Chris Tabert, assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 101, flies the squadron’s first local sortie. The F-35C is the carrier va...
 

 
boeing-SC-787

Boeing South Carolina begins final assembly of its first 787-9 Dreamliner

Boeing has started final assembly of the 787-9 Dreamliner at its South Carolina facility. The team began joining large fuselage sections of the newest 787 Nov. 22 on schedule, a proud milestone for the South Carolina team and a...
 
 
Lockheed Martin image

Ball Aerospace equips Orion mission with key avionics, antenna hardware

Lockheed Martin image Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. is providing the phased array antennas and flight test cameras to prime contractor Lockheed Martin for Orion’s Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), which is an u...
 
 

Salina, Kansas, recalls anniversary of shuttered base

It has been 50 years this month since the announcement that Schilling Air Force Base was closing rattled Salina residents. The Salina Journal, which carried news of the closure in its Nov. 19, 1964, editions, reported that the economic disaster then spared no part of the community – real estate, retail, civic involvement, church attendance,...
 




One Comment



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>