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 September 19, 2014

News: McKeon on broader military authorization: Anything can ‘fail or pass’ - Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said if Congress returns after the midterm elections to weigh a broader military authorization for the battle against Islamic State, it might not pass. Defense contractor gets 7 years for giving secrets...
 
 

News Briefs September 19, 2014

U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan at 2,203 As of Sept. 16, 2014, at least 2,203 members of the U.S. military had died in Afghanistan as a result of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, according to an Associated Press count. At least 1,823 military service members have died in Afghanistan as a result...
 
 

Pratt & Whitney, U.S. Air Force complete qualification for F135 engine testing

Pratt & Whitney, a United Technologies Corp. , together with its U.S. Air Force partner at the F135 Heavy Maintenance Center at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., celebrated another significant milestone qualification for F135 engine testing at the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex. OC-ALC which in addition to engine testing is also qualified to perform...
 

 
Navy photograph

Triton has first cross-country flight from Palmdale

Northrop Grumman photograph The MQ-4C Triton Unmanned Aircraft System takes off from Northrop Grummanís Palmdale, Calif., facility Sept. 17 for its first cross-country flight to Naval Air Station Patuxent, River, Md. PALMDALE,...
 
 
Air Force photograph by Michael J. Pausic

Future of NATO: Adapting to a new security environment

Air Force photograph by Michael J. Pausic Gen. Phillip Breedlove informs the assembled crowd about the results of the recent NATO Summit and the areas of instability that affect Europe that have regional implications. Seated in...
 
 
Air Force photograph by Scott M. Ash

AFRL commander describes Air Force’s technology vision

Air Force photograph by Scott M. Ash Maj. Gen. Thomas Masiello takes a question from an audience member after discussing Air Force Research Laboratory breakthrough technologies during the 2014 Air Force Association’s Air ...
 




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>