After a flawless trip into orbit around the moon, the U.S. space probe Lunar Prospector has started scouring the lunar surface for possible reserves of water which could prove invaluable for any future human moon colonies.
Mission control scientists said on Tuesday, January 13 that the small robot explorer had established a preliminary mapping orbit after its 240,000-mile journey to the moon, which took approximately four and a half days.
After three orbital insertion burns, the tiny 4-foot, 650 pound spacecraft eased into an orbit some 60 miles above the moon's surface. A final burn of the craft's thrusters on January 15 finalized its mapping route.
The five scientific instruments mounted on the drum-like probe were all running and streams of data were already pouring in "far better than expected," said Alan Binder, the mission's principal investigator.
The Prospector's neutron spectrometer will scan the surface for signs of hydrogen to confirm theories that the moon's polar regions could contain as much as one billion tons of water ice.
"If water ice is present in the quantity some people have predicted, we may know that in the first month of the mission," said mission manager Scott Hubbard.
With a price tag of $63 million, the Lunar Prospector is a modest successor to the multibillion-dollar Apollo project, which landed 12 men on the moon from 1969 to 1972.
Hubbard said Prospector's performance so far showed that NASA's new aim of "faster, better, cheaper" is the right way to further explore space.
"This is probably the most cost-effective space science mission ever conducted," Hubbard said. "We hope that we will be able to apply some of these lessons to future missions."
Original file name: CNI - Lunar Prospector.final
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