’s fuel-depleted Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (Grail) A and B lunar mission probes slammed into a mountain near Goldschmidt crater at the Moon’s North Pole late Dec. 17, ending a one-year mission.
The carefully targeted impact of the two washing machine-sized spacecraft, renamed Ebb and Flow, occurred on schedule, with Ebb striking first at 5:28 p.m. EST, and Flow striking 32 sec. later. The spacecraft impacted the Moon at 3,800 mph.
’s choreographed the mission’s finale to keep the two spacecraft circling in low polar orbits for as long as possible to both stretch out high-resolution gravity field data gathering and to prevent even the slightest possibility of impacts at one of the Moon’s historic U.S. Apollo and Soviet-era Luna mission landing sites. In all, there were 23 heritage sites to avoid.
Ebb and Flow approached the North Pole massif from the south, skimming just above the lunar terrain along trajectories of 1 to 1 1/2 deg. to avoid overshooting their unnamed 2 km-high (1.25 mi.-high) target, said David Lehman, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Grail project manager.
NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which surveyed the target mountain ridge ahead of the impact, will make a follow-up verification pass in about two weeks to search for evidence that water or other volatiles were tossed up by the two impacts.
Launched Sept. 10, 2011, Ebb and Flow maneuvered into orbit on Dec. 31, 2011 and Jan. 1, 2012 respectively, flying in formation to generate high-resolution maps of the Moon’s lumpy gravity field. The mission cost was $500 million.
“The Grail team has done a great job,” Lehman said. “We’ve done it on schedule and under budget.”
Data from the prime mission between March and May has confirmed theories suggesting the Moon’s origins are from a collision between a Mars-sized object and the Earth, and that rocky planets of the inner Solar System were heavily bombarded by celestial debris during the formative era.
“It’s improved our knowledge of the Moon by orders of magnitude,” JPL Director Charles Elachi said of Grail.
Findings from the prime as well as an extended mission that got under way in late August as the average altitude of the two spacecraft was lowered from 55 km (34.4 mi.) to 23 km (14.4 mi.), will be used to improve the navigational information used by future robotic and human mission landers. The average altitude was lowered again on Dec. 6 to 11 km (6.9 mi.) for the final orbits.
The two spacecraft averaged three firings a week to maintain altitude and sustain formation, which accounted for the fuel depletion.
The findings from the extended period should join those of the primary mission in NASA’s Planetary Data System by the end of May.
Following the impact, the crash site was renamed for Sally Ride, America’s first female astronaut. Ride died of pancreatic cancer in July. She was 61.
Sally Ride Science, of San Diego, Calif., was responsible for the MoonKAM student experiment flown on the two Grail spacecraft, which enabled students to pick sites on the Moon they wished to photograph with cameras mounted on Ebb and Flow. The photography was carried out with the help of students at the University of California, San Diego.