NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter turns 10

Last Updated: Wed, Jun 19, 2019 11:32 hrs

Houston: NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter launched 10 years ago today (June 18, 2009), at a time when NASA was toying with going back to the moon. A decade later, the agency now has a tight deadline of 2024 to land people on the lunar surface, and LRO's data will likely guide the way.

LRO is best known as a water hunter and high-definition mapper of the lunar surface. Both water and clear maps are essential for any human missions. Permanent settlements on the moon will do better if settlers can "live off the land" and use frozen water on site, because that will mean they won't have to launch so much weight from Earth. And when it comes to finding a good spot to do exploration, LRO's images can't be beat. They're so precise that they even picked up details of the Apollo moon landing sites, each of which humans visited nearly half a century ago.

LRO carries a suite of cameras and instruments to reveal more about the moon's environment. Those tools include an ultraviolet instrument that could sense surface ice and frost, a cosmic ray telescope to measure radiation levels, and a radiometer to peer underneath the thick lunar dust.

The LRO also once carried a pair of companion spacecraft called LCROSS, which stands for Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite. The LCROSS probes had a short mission, but the project assisted with an amazing find after the twin spacecraft deliberately crashed into the surface in 2009; the cosmic smashup, which LRO witnessed from orbit, revealed that the lunar south pole hosted a lot of water ice in Cabeus crater. A decade later, multiple observations of water by LRO suggest that this very region might be the best spot for landing thirsty astronauts.

LRO additionally serves as a nifty technology demonstrator. For example, robotic probes across the universe use radio communication to stay in touch with Earth. This is a reliable but somewhat slow way of sending information from distant outposts. In 2013, LRO tried something new, gamely receiving a copy of the famous Leonardo da Vinci "Mona Lisa" painting by laser. The venture was so successful that NASA predicted lasers could serve as a backup for radio communications on some spacecraft.

While the LRO spacecraft remains in good health, a regular natural phenomenon does threaten the probe from time to time. Lunar eclipses can cut off the spacecraft from harvesting solar power.

When LRO was younger, NASA would have it spend such eclipses mapping temperature changes on the lunar surface; that's how scientists discovered that the top 0.4 to 0.8 inches (1 to 2 centimeters) below the lunar surface rapidly change temperature during these events.