NASA: Lunar orbiter begins mapping, studying moon surface

Flying about 31 miles above the surface, orbiter begins sending home images and data

Carrying seven scientific instruments and an intricate communications system, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has begun the year-long process of mapping the surface of the moon.

The spacecraft, which launched on June 18, has successfully wrapped up its 60-day testing and calibration phase, according to NASA. The orbiter has begun sending back images of the lunar surface, along with data collected by its instruments.

The craft is orbiting about 31 miles above the surface of the moon, which is the closest that any spacecraft has orbited the moon, NASA said.

"The [orbiter] mission already has begun to give us new data that will lead to a vastly improved atlas of the lunar south pole and advance our capability for human exploration and scientific benefit," said Richard Vondrak, a project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in a statement.

The space agency is hoping that the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, along with its partner, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, will provide unprecedented detail about the moon. Along with mapping the surface, scientists are hoping to search for resources, like water, along with safe landing sites for future trips. The craft can also measure lunar temperatures and radiation levels.

NASA has been planning on putting humans back on the moon by 2020 but those plans are in flux giving the current economic conditions and an Obama administration review of NASA space missions. NASA officials say that getting more information about moon will be key to any return there.

NASA reported on Thursday that the orbiters are finding that the south pole of the moon, with its shadowed craters and frigid — about minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit — temperatures, may hold water ice and hydrogen. The ice and hydrogen may have been deposited by comets and solar winds, and then accumulated over billions of years in or under the craters.

NASA scientists noted that if enough of these resources exist on the moon, future visitors there could mine them, instead of hauling water with them from Earth.

To get all of this scientific information back to Earth, the orbiter has a powerful communications system onboard that can send massive amounts of data across the 238,000 miles back to Mission Control.

A 13-inch-long tube, called a Traveling Wave Tube Amplifier, is designed to enable the orbiter to transmit 461GB of data per day, NASA noted, adding that it's more information than is generally found in a four-story library. And it transmits the information at a rate of up to 100 megabytes per second, compared to a typical high-speed Internet service of about 1 to 3 megabytes per second.

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