NASA takes aim at moon for an exotic mission

Many space enthusiasts are mourning the end of the shuttle program, but NASA is still going to the moon. The space agency plans to launch two unmanned probes on Sept. 8 that will orbit our nearest celestial neighbor simultaneously. The mission is intended to help answer questions about how the moon and the Earth came into being, the temperature conditions at various points in the history of the solar system, and the composition of the moon, from crust to core.

So how can two hunks of metal floating far above a celestial body tell what's inside it?

Like much of NASA's work, the GRAIL mission — named for the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory probes — is all about gravity. Here's how it's supposed to work: The spacecraft will leave Earth together on a 125-foot-tall Delta 2 rocket. Once they're carried away from the pull of Earth, the two GRAILs will be released. The craft each weigh about 500 pounds, and NASA describes them as about the size of a washing machine.

The GRAIL twins will take the long way to the moon — about three or four months, compared with the four days it took Neil Armstrong et al. in 1969 on the Apollo 11 mission. The longer, more circuitous route saves energy and also enables the GRAIL craft to maintain a reasonably constant speed by passing through a so-called Lagrangian point, where the gravitational forces of the Earth and moon interact in a way that eases the craft's transition between them.

GRAIL A will enter lunar orbit on New Year's Eve, with GRAIL B doing the same on New Year's Day. Over two months, the spacecraft will shift from an initial 11.5-hour elliptical orbit to a two-hour orbit that is nearly circular, with GRAIL B constantly chasing GRAIL A around the moon.

After that, the real science will begin. The key to the mission is maintaining the distance between the two spacecraft. As GRAIL A and B whip around the moon over the following 82 days, small variations in the moon's gravitational field will change the speed of each craft, causing them to drift slightly closer together or farther apart.

The slight changes in the moon's gravity at different points indicate what's going on inside the moon itself.

A NASA effort similar to GRAIL — named GRACE, for Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment — has been mapping the Earth's gravitational field since 2002. It shows a bizarrely shaped field, with bumps and ridges caused by the uneven distribution of landmass, ocean currents, ground water runoff and ice sheets. The moon's gravitational field has similar lumps and bumps.

Of course, irregularities in the moon's gravitational field reveal only so much. Changes in density can mean differences in composition, the presence of liquid and temperature shifts. Scientists will rely on work from previous trips to the moon to make inferences about what's under the moon's crust.

Maria Zuber, principal investigator for the GRAIL mission, a professor of geophysics at MIT, also notes that the mission might confirm an exciting new corollary theory that Earth once had two moons, which collided to form one.