The year started well for space missions because on December 31, 2011 and January 1, 2012 the two twin spacecraft that make up the GRAIL (Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory) mission launched last September entered lunar orbit about twenty-four hours away from each other.
Now the two GRAIL spacecraft are in a near-polar elliptical orbit with an orbital period of about 11.5 hours. At this point the second phase of the mission starts, which consists in changing the orbits of the spacecraft using their engines until they’re nearly circular with an orbital period of almost 2 hours at an altitude of about 55 km (about 34 miles) from the surface of the Moon.
The GRAIL spacecraft orbit adjustment operation will be carried out gradually so it will take several weeks before they can start their scientific research in which they’ll work together to detect variations in lunar gravity. This stage is expected to start in March.
In addition to the instruments needed for the mission, the GRAIL spacecraft are also equipped with the GRAIL MoonKAM (Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students), a camera that will send pictures of areas selected by American middle school students. This instrument was added for educational purposes, to engage in the mission the public and especially young students.
NASA recognizes the importance of having people know their missions and in general the importance of scientific research but also their appeal to young people who are supposed to become the scientists and hopefully the astronauts of the future. This is particularly important at a time when many people seem to regard ignorance as a kind of bliss and denigrate science though they don’t understand it. The same people however don’t seem to have problems when it comes to using technological devices made also thanks to the scientific research they disdain so much.
American students are also the protagonists of a contest started in October 2011 to give the two spacecrafts a proper name, as so far they’ve been simply called GRAIL-A and, guess what, GRAIL-B. The winners of the contest, and together with them the new spacecraft’s official names, should be announced later this month.
For now, we wait for the GRAIL spacecraft to be ready to start their research to solve the mysteries of the Moon, which in some ways are the mysteries of the Earth as well.