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Findings with Gravity: NASA’s Upcoming Lunar GRAIL Mission January 20, 2011

Posted by Nick Azer in : GRAIL, gravity, interior composition, mass concentrations (mascons), Raytheon, space conflict , add a comment

NASA is launching a new lunar orbiter mission this year, and it’s one whose findings will carry a lot of gravity: the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL)!

Utilizing nifty twin spacecraft, the mission (to be launched in Fall 2011) will map out the interior structure of the Moon in unprecedented detail, helping to reveal mysteries of its gravity and just how the Moon’s geologic thermal evolution unfolded.

A sister project of sorts to GRACE—successful twin satellites that have been measuring Earth’s gravitational fields since 2002—GRAIL is part of the NASA Discovery program, an initiative to develop smaller, cheaper, faster science missions to tackle objectives similar to more unwieldy missions of the past.

The Moon’s interior has been in the news lately; GRAIL’s findings will deepen (literally) this kind of knowledge, which could lend itself to understanding not just the Moon better, but also other bodies in the Solar System.

The findings will also help understand more about why the Moon’s gravity is “lumpy”. Yes, lumpy:

“The Moon is extraordinarily lumpy, gravitationally speaking. I don’t mean mountains or physical topography. I mean in mass. What appear to be flat seas of lunar lava have huge positive gravitational anomalies—that is, their mass and thus their gravitational fields are significantly stronger than the rest of the lunar crust.” -JPL planetary scientist Alex S. Konopliv, “Bizarre Lunar Orbits“, Nasa.Science.Gov

These lumps—called mass concentrations, or ‘mascons’—are tied to five maria on the near side. Why, exactly, is a mystery; one the GRAIL hopes to unravel.

Another interesting fold to the mission is the origin of the spacecraft design: the Airforce’s controversial XSS-11 satellite. Launched in 2005, the XSS-11 was seen by many as a step towards the U.S. military’s goal of ‘operationally responsive space’; the mission raised concerns that the design could later be used as a weapon to attack foreign satellites. (See Raytheon’s page on responsive space for more on the military concept.)

But, for now, we’ll be seeing the XSS-11 design put to peaceful (and awesome) use with the Moon. Success for GRAIL could open the door to more affordable missions across the solar system, and potentially more such practical missions to the Moon…and hopefully, with no costly satellite dogfights along the way. :)

One Giant Leap for Plantkind? July 27, 2008

Posted by Nick Azer in : gravity, lunar plantlife, radiation , add a comment

According to a nifty Wired.com blog article, NASA scientists put forward the idea this week of launching plants to the moon and watching their growth carefully, as a way of studying the potential effects of long-term habitation (low gravity, radiation, etc.).

The brave plant suggested for the job is Arabidopsis thaliana, part of the mustard family:

Moon colonist?

Check out the linked article for a full rundown of thaliana‘s moon-faring resume.

Interesting things could potentially happen when you mix plants and lunar radiation/soil/etc., but regardless, this is an idea that is a potential wonder of effectiveness through simplicity.

Hawking for Colonization June 6, 2008

Posted by Nick Azer in : gravity, NASA, Robert A. Heinlein , add a comment

Recently, at an event marking NASA’s 50th anniversary, the legendary physicist Stephen Hawking joined the ranks of those vocally supporting Lunar and Martian colonization.

And then some. Calling for the world to “devote about 10 times as much as 0.25% of its financial resources to space”, as well as an acceleration of the efforts to get man on Mars (currently looking to be in the early 2030s), he also noted that any long-term colony should have a significant gravity field to avoid microgravity health issues (bone loss, etc.), often cited as a concern for moon colonies and a central feature of Robert A. Heinlein‘s classic novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

The 66-year-old Hawking is brilliant, yet near-paralyzed (he still considers himself “lucky“), and is widely known for his research with theoretical cosmology (the structure and design of the universe), quantum gravity (beyond the description of a simple parentheses), and black holes. Having such high-profile supporters speaking out now asserts how timely colonization is for this era and generation; as colonization picks up even more speed, we may see potentially even more vocal supporters.