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Gallery: NASA takes first small step back to moon

NASA put man's return to the moon in motion as it loaded the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter into a truck to be taken from Goddard Space Center Greenbelt, Maryland to Cape Kennedy, Florida where it will be hurled into lunar orbit in late April.
By Andy Smith, Contributor
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Last week, NASA put man's return to the moon in motion as it loaded the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter into a truck to be taken from Goddard Space Center Greenbelt, Maryland to Cape Kennedy, Florida where it will be hurled into lunar orbit on April 24.

The LRO is scheduled to spend a year examining and mapping the lunar surface for possible treasures and landing sites for future astronauts. It will also release a probe called the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) that will crash into the moon in search of water ice. Then the LRO will devote its next (and probably last) two years to science.

Photo credits: NASA

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The LRO was built at the Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and spent two months in a thermal vacuum chamber to test its performance in the extreme hot and cold conditions that it will encounter in lunar orbit.

At Goddard, the LRO was wrapped in plastic and placed in a box for shipping to Florida.

Credit: NASA/Andy Freeberg

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The LRO passed its thermal vacuum testing at the Goddard Space Center.

"We have cooked LRO, frozen it, shaken it, and blasted it with electromagnetic waves, and still it operates," said Dave Everett, LRO mission system engineer at Goddard. "We have performed more than 2,500 hours of powered testing since January, more than 600 of that in vacuum."

Credit: NASA/GSFC

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The other side of the LRO.

Credit: NASA/GSFC

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The LRO will carry seven instruments to study the moon in addition to the LCROSS probe. It will orbit the polar regions of the moon where it may have continuous access to sunlight and will be able to search some of the permanently shadowed areas of the lunar surface which could contain water ice.

An artist's concept of the LRO. Credit: NASA

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The LRO is lowered into the Goddard's Thermal Vac which tests its performance in conditions that will simulate lunar orbit.

Credit: NASA/Debbie McCallum

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The Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) is also en route to Cape Kennedy, Florida where it will be launched with the LRO to the moon on April 24. LCROSS, which was built and tested at Northrop Grumman's facility in Redondo Beach, California, is expected to reach the moon while attached to Atlas V's Centaur upper stage rocket.

When a target inside a permanently shadowed lunar crater is chosen, the Centaur will separate from the LCROSS and then crash into the crater. LCROSS will pass through the resulting plume about four minutes later to collect and send data back to Earth. The relatively inexpensive LCROSS probe will then crash into the moon to create a second plume for analysis.

Here scientists at Grumman check LCROSS.

Credit: NASA, courtesy of Northrop Grumman

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In order to choose the best landing site, scientists will use data collected from the LRO to create models of the lunar surface - similar to this one of a crater. The green areas on this map are considered safe for landing. Areas with steep slopes, rocky terrain, and extreme temperatures are ruled out.


Credit: NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio
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A key goal of the mission is to search for treasures on the moon - and scientists believe that they can be found where hydrogen deposits are most concentrated.

In this image, the blue areas show the least amount of neutrons - where hydrogen buildups are likely. It is hoped that water ice can be located in these areas. Water costs about $50,000 a pound to ship to the moon so finding a deposit there would be priceless.

Helium 3 is another compound that is much more plentiful on the moon than the Earth. Although its power has yet to be harnessed, many scientists believe that Helium 3 could be an ultra-powerful and clean energy source on Earth.

Credit: William Feldman/Los Alamos National Labs

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Neil Armstrong took this photo of Buzz Aldrin who has just set up the Early Apollo Scientific Experiments Package, with the Passive Seismic Experiment Package. The landing craft, Eagle, is in the background.

Credit: NASA/Neil A. Armstrong, Lunar Module commander

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While the LRO is visiting the moon, NASA will continue to test other equipment that will be used by astronauts. One is NASA's new Small Pressurized Rover. Shown here at the 2008 Desert RATS tests at Black Point Lava Flow in Arizona, the pressurized vehicle will allow astronauts to live in the rover for days so they can explore new lunar regions.

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Another artist's concept of LRO. Credit: NASA

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