Looking Up – Bob Eklund

The second of NASA’s two Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) spacecraft has successfully completed its planned main engine burn and is now in lunar orbit. Working together, GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B will study the Moon as never before, in a mission that carries—for the first time ever—instruments dedicated to education and public outreach.

“NASA greets the new year with a new mission of exploration,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “The twin GRAIL spacecraft will vastly expand our knowledge of our Moon and the evolution of our own planet. We begin this year reminding people around the world that NASA does big, bold things in order to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown.”

At the start of the science phase in March 2012, the two GRAILs will be in a near-polar, near-circular orbit with an altitude of about 34 miles (55 kilometers) above the lunar surface.

During GRAIL’s science mission, the two spacecraft will transmit radio signals precisely defining the distance between them. As they fly over areas of greater and lesser gravity caused by visible features such as mountains and craters as well as masses hidden beneath the lunar surface, the distance between the two spacecraft will change slightly.

Scientists will translate this information into a high-resolution map of the Moon’s gravitational field. The data will allow scientists to understand what goes on below the lunar surface. This information will increase knowledge of how Earth and its rocky neighbors in the inner solar system developed into the diverse worlds we see today.


GRAIL is NASA’s first planetary mission to carry instruments that are fully dedicated to education and public outreach. Each spacecraft carries a small camera called GRAIL MoonKAM (Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students) with the sole purpose of education and public outreach. The MoonKAM program is led by Sally Ride, America’s first woman in space, and her team at Sally Ride Science in collaboration with undergraduate students at the University of California, San Diego.

GRAIL MoonKAM will engage middle schools across the country in the GRAIL mission and lunar exploration. Thousands of fifth- to eighth-grade students will select target areas on the lunar surface and send requests to the GRAIL MoonKAM Mission Operations Center in San Diego. Photos of the target areas will be sent back by the GRAIL satellites for students to study.

The MoonKAM website will show the spacecraft orbits projected onto a map of the Moon, showing exactly where each spacecraft will be at any given date and time during the mission. Students will be able to click on any point on those orbits and zoom in for a closer look at the features at that location. When they decide what they want to take a picture of, they will submit the date and time they want the picture taken, along with the latitude and longitude of the lunar feature. It’s all done right on the website.

Classrooms can follow the progress of each request by using a tracking number at the MoonKAM website. They can see when their request has been accepted, when their instructions have been uploaded to the spacecraft, when their picture has been taken, and when it has been downloaded to the MoonKAM server.

Their pictures will appear on the MoonKAM website, along with the name of their school and class. Teachers can register their classrooms at moonkam.ucsd.edu/.

More information about MoonKAM: solarsystem.nasa.gov/grail/education.cfm

You can contact Bob Eklund at his website at www.bobeklund.com.

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