Wednesday, September 07, 2011

NASA Readies Twin Lunar Spacecraft

Lunar Spacecraft
ANASA-backed team of scientists and engineers is set to map the Moon’s gravity—and internal structure—with a pair of spacecraft working on the same principle as the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (Grace) mission orbiting Earth.

Like Grace, the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (Grail) mission will track minute changes in the distance between two satellites in the same orbit caused by changes in the density of the terrain below. To hold down costs, it is drawing on heritage from Grace and other missions developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Lockheed Martin.

Beyond the rich scientific results expected from Grail, use of that heritage hardware holds an important lesson as NASA slashes its contractor workforce with the retirement of the space shuttle fleet. Heritage hardware is a good way to stretch space-exploration dollars, Grail managers have found, but it is not a substitute for experienced technical experts in making the hardware work.

While the Grail satellites are physically very similar to the Experimental Satellite System-11 (XSS-11) microsat that Lockheed Martin built for the Air Force Research Laboratory to launch in 2005, the differences were enough that in some cases it was a challenge to fit the new mission into the heritage hardware. That is where the experienced workforce came in handy to make the new mission fit into the old hardware designs.

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