PASADENA, Calif. – As planet Earth rang in the new year, a different kind of countdown was happening at the moon.
After a 3 1/2-month journey, a NASA spacecraft flew over the moon’s south pole, fired its engine and dropped into orbit Saturday in the first of two back-to-back arrivals over the New Year’s weekend.
Mission control at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory erupted in cheers and applause after receiving confirmation that the probe was healthy and circling the moon. An engineer was seen on closed-circuit television blowing a noisemaker to herald the New Year’s Eve arrival.
“Everything went just as we hoped. The burn was spot-on,” chief scientist Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said in a post-mission interview.
The team toasted sparkling cider, but the celebration was brief. Despite the successful maneuver, the work was not over. Its twin still had to enter lunar orbit today.
The Grail probes – short for Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory – have been cruising independently toward their destination since launching in September aboard the same rocket on a mission to measure lunar gravity.
Grail is the 110th mission to target the moon since the dawn of the Space Age including the six Apollo moon landings that put 12 astronauts on the surface. Despite the attention the moon has received, scientists don’t know everything about Earth’s nearest neighbor.
Why the moon is ever so slightly lopsided with the far side more mountainous than the side that always faces Earth remains a mystery. A theory put forth earlier this year suggested that Earth once had two moons that collided early in the solar system’s history, producing the hummocky region.
Grail is expected to help researchers better understand why the moon is asymmetrical and how it formed by mapping the uneven lunar gravity field that will indicate what’s below the surface.
Previous lunar missions have attempted to study the moon’s gravity – which is about one-sixth Earth’s pull – with mixed results. Grail is the first mission devoted to this goal.
Once in orbit, the near-identical spacecraft will spend the next two months refining their positions until they are just 34 miles above the surface and flying in formation. Data collection will begin in March.