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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Silicon Valley's first moon launch and it happened Friday at NASA Ames

You could call it Silicon Valley's first moon launch and it happened Friday at NASA Ames. The space agency took a major step toward putting a person on the moon again.

The moon made a rare daytime appearance for the dedication ceremony of the Lunar Science Institute at Ames Research Center.
It's been more than 30 years since the last manned moon mission

Long before the next manned mission to the moon, Earth-bound scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View will send a spacecraft to the lunar surface to study its thick layer of dust and find out what kicks it up.

The $80 million craft is being built and managed by the Ames center and will fly to the moon three years from now, launched aboard a single rocket together with a second spacecraft from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that will examine lunar gravity from orbit.

Still another craft, also managed by the Ames center, is scheduled to be launched to the moon in October and crash into a lunar crater near the moon's South Pole. Its instruments will hunt for signs of water that might be used by astronauts living inside a future outpost, NASA officials said Friday as they dedicated the center's new Lunar Science Institute.

The missions are all designed to pave the way for future landings by human crews and all bear elaborate names and acronyms for their goals: The dust-hunter on the moon's surface is called LADEE, for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer; its orbiting companion's name is GRAIL, for Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory; and the one being readied for launch this fall is LCROSS, for Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite.

The missions were described Friday as NASA officials dedicated the Ames center's new Lunar Science Institute, where scientists will link to other researchers around the country studying every aspect of the moon's geology, history and chemistry.

David Morrison, a veteran Ames astronomer and the institute's interim director, said that four or five teams of researchers at other institutions will win four-year grants of $1 million to $2 million each, and as many as 50 scientists could be involved in lunar studies for the institute by the end of this year.

The scientists will study basic lunar science, Morrison said, but new teams will also investigate what kinds of research in fields like biology, astronomy and even earth sciences might eventually be conducted from manned outposts on the moon.

The $80 million LADEE spacecraft will take four months to reach the moon and then spend three months on the surface analyzing the fine-grained dust that coats the soil.

The dust proved bothersome to the astronauts of the Apollo program and could make things difficult for future long-term missions. It is also influenced by the "solar wind" of electrically charged particles that constantly blow from the sun at more than a million mph, and the spacecraft will measure the effects of those particles on the dust.

"These measurements will provide scientific insight into the lunar environment, and give our explorers a clearer understanding of what they'll be up against as they set up the first outpost and begin the process of settling the solar system," S. Pete Worden, director of the Ames center, said in a statement.

All the new lunar missions, and many more, are in line with President Bush's proclaimed "vision for space exploration" four years ago when he called for returning astronauts to the moon by 2020, building a manned outpost there, and sending "human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond" in the more distant future.

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