NASA Podcasts

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May 4, 2009

Interview with LRO TEAM
- John Keller
- Tim McClanahan
- Noah Petro
Interview with Jennifer Heldmann – LCROSS
Interview with Tiffany Nail – Launch Services Flight Program Office

Need to know surface and subsurface temperatures for the Moon? There’s an app for that. Need to assess potential biological impacts on the Moon? There’s an app for that. Need 3-dimensional landing site slopes for Altair? There’s an app for that. It may not be an iPhone, but LRO and LCROSS have these apps and more to deliver amazing, crater breaking data for NASA’s return to the Moon. Chris, Blair and Franklin interview experts from both teams about these amazing missions, and you don’t even have to sign a long term service contract.


CHRIS: Welcome to NASA EDGE.

FRANKLIN: An inside and outside look at all things NASA.

BLAIR:: Today, those all things are LRO and LCROSS.

CHRIS: What’s LRO and LCROSS stand for?

BLAIR:: I’m glad you asked, Chris. LRO: Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter; and LCROSS: the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite.

CHRIS: I think we’ll start out with LRO for the first half of this vodcast. We’ll look at the LCROSS later.

BLAIR:: Because LRO is the first step in our returning to the moon.

CHRIS: Absolutely. In fact, the LRO mission, which is unmanned, will be creating a comprehensive atlas of the lunar surface. It’s going to aid in the design of the lunar outpost.

BLAIR:: So what are the features, Chris, the options, if you will of the LRO?

CHRIS: The apps?

BLAIR:: Yes, the proverbial apps.

CHRIS: The first one is going to be the Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation. That will characterize the lunar radiation environment allowing scientists to determine potential biological impacts. The Diviner Lunar Radiometer Experiment will measure the surface and subsurface temperatures from orbit. The Lyman Alpha Mapping Project will map the entire lunar surface in the far ultraviolet spectrum. The Lunar Exploration Neutron Detector will create high-resolution maps of hydrogen distribution and gather information about the neutron components of the lunar radiation environment. The Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter or LOLA will measure landing site slopes, lunar surface roughness and generate a high-resolution, 3-dimensional map of the moon. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera consists of two narrow angle cameras that will make high-resolution, black & white images of the surface, and a third wide angle camera will take color and ultraviolet images over the complete lunar surface. And finally, the Mini-RF Technology Demonstrator which is going to be an advanced, synthetic aperture radar that operates in both the X and S-bands of the radio spectrum. A lot of data is being collected from all these instruments.

FRANKLIN: Man, that thing was packed like a sausage skin.

BLAIR:: Literally speaking, I guess. Interestingly enough, when we went through the clean room or just after that, we talked with the three gurus that actually work on the project. Why don’t we take a look at what they have to say? It will make a lot more sense then what we’re trying to do now.

CHRIS: Exactly. Go ahead.

BLAIR:: Let’s check it out.

BLAIR:: Hi, we’re here with John Keller at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. We’re going to talk about an exciting aspect of LRO which I thought was a reference to a Kink’s song but it’s really something much greater, LOLA. What is LOLA?

JOHN: LOLA is the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter. It’s one of the six instruments on the spacecraft. What is does is measure essentially the shape of the moon.

BLAIR:: Okay. How does it do that? That sounds like a complicated task for someone like myself.

JOHN: The spacecraft is orbiting the moon constantly in a polar orbit. As the moon rotates underneath, the instrument is firing a laser constantly down on the surface of the moon.

BLAIR:: Kind of like a laser-driven sonar almost.

JOHN: That’s right.

BLAIR:: Okay.

JOHN: It’s called an altimeter. We know the speed of light and therefore we know the distance.

CHRIS: I’m at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center with Noah Petro, who’s a planetary scientist or Goddard’s Expert Lunar Guru or ELG.

NOAH: That’s right.

CHRIS: Behind us is the LRO spacecraft, which is going to be the first spacecraft heading back to the moon sometime this year. What’s going on in the clean room?

NOAH: They’re doing an alignment test on the spacecraft. The spacecraft in the past few days has been through vibration testing. They shake the spacecraft, very violently. Now they’re making sure everything has stayed properly aligned.

CHRIS: Cool. Now this is a very exciting mission for us as you know. We’re going back to the moon and this is the first spacecraft going back. There’s a lot of scientific instruments on board. As a planetary scientist, how important is this spacecraft?

NOAH: This spacecraft is going to return some of the best data we’ve ever gotten from the moon. It’s going to return data from the entire surface of the moon, instead of looking at high detail of one or two specific locations or various landing sites. It will be looking at the entire surface of the moon. For the first time, we’ll get a lunar wide picture of the moon, very high detail, data representing typography, composition. It’s very, very exciting.

CHRIS: Essentially, what you’re telling me is we’ll finally be able to “mapquest” on the moon.

NOAH: Absolutely. We will be able to mapquest down to the centimeter level with some of the instruments aboard the spacecraft.

FRANKLIN: Hey guys, I’m here with Tim McClanahan who is a participating scientist with the LEND instrument on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. LEND stands for Lunar Exploration Neutron Detector?

TIM: Yep, exactly.

FRANKLIN: What does that mean?

TIM: We’re actually trying to do is use a detector to look down at the surface of the moon and try to detect hydrogen. We’re interested in finding out how much is there because hydrogen might be an important element to be able to use for future exploration uses of water and possibly use it for rocket fuel.

FRANKLIN: You’re also looking for any signs of surface water?

TIM: Yep.

FRANKLIN: There’s another instrument on the LRO that’s also looking for subsurface water. That’s the mini RF Technology. Is there a little bit of over lap?

TIM: There’s certainly intersection. Many times the instruments look at things from slightly different perspectives. What LEND is going to try to do is detect the emissions of neutrons by looking at the different ways the surface of the moon emits neutrons and the energies we get, we can them make the case of how much water we might get in that particular location on the moon.

JOHN: They way their instrument works is it has one laser but it splits that laser into five spots. Those five spots hit the surface of the moon at about 25 meters apart. That gives them instantaneous slope information as well. The slope information will help us find those areas that are acceptable for landing. We’re looking for areas with potential resources. We’re looking for an area of what we call points of permanent illumination.

BLAIR:: Oh yeah, daylight.

JOHN: Daylight all the time, essentially, that’s right. Because the moon is only tilted a little bit even as the moon rotates some of the higher elevation areas may be in view of the sun at all times. We expect that real estate to be fairly small. We’re trying to find within a relatively small area one of the safe spots there.

BLAIR:: Another thing this does is give you more options for that. If it’s a relatively small space, you can at least define that and say that’s the window where we want to go. We’ve got permanent illumination. We can throw up our solar panels and be in good shape.

JOHN: That’s right.

TIM: What we’d like to have is find a source for water that we can have there. It costs tens of thousands of dollars per pound that we take up into space. If you have to take all that water with you, that gets to be a really expensive proposition. What we’d like to be able to do is find as much resources as we can on the surface of the moon so we don’t have to fly it up there.

NOAH: I’m most interested in the composition of the lunar surface and how the composition can vary over distances. I think we think of the moon as very simple. What we’re starting to realize is the moon is very complex. The geology and the surface of the moon can vary over very small distances. What this spacecraft will allow us to see is how that change in composition over small distances can influence where we might want to return with a landing spacecraft or where we may want to send future missions. My favorite place on the moon is a large feature called the South Pole Aitken Basin.

CHRIS: Oh, okay.

NOAH: It’s the largest crater on the moon. It’s about 2,500 km in diameter, about 10 km deep. It’s thought to be one of the oldest impact craters on the moon. There are rocks at the bottom of the crater that have never been sampled before. We don’t know how old the basin is, so there are many interesting, unanswered questions. It’s a fascinating place that we’ve only just started to understand what’s going on there.

CHRIS: Is there a potential for water ice in the basin?

NOAH: Well, part of that basin, because it is so large, it goes from just near the equator to the south pole of the moon. You can still be standing inside the basin and be standing at the south pole. The south pole is where there’s the possibility of having water ice at the surface. That is one of the areas the spacecraft will be looking at. LRO is going to be such an exciting mission because it’s going to return so much data but it’s only one of four spacecrafts that will be orbiting the moon. There’s a Japanese spacecraft, a Chinese spacecraft, an Indian spacecraft. We’re going to get a complete and very detailed image of what the moon is made of, what the shape of the moon is. We’re going to understand the moon in ways we’ve never imagined to be possible.

CHRIS: The great thing about all this data is this data will be available to the public.

NOAH: Absolutely. With the LRO data and data from some of the other missions, they’ll be made available to the public. I know certain images that will be returned by the spacecraft will be made available the day they are taken. Eventually, within a year of the mission, all the data will be available. Anybody can go look at the images, look at the data and do their own analysis.

BLAIR:: I’m glad LOLA is part of the team here. That’ll be great.

JOHN: It will be.

BLAIR:: Awesome.

CHRIS: So what do you think?

BLAIR:: I’m still amazed at just how much is on this satellite. We only had them talk about a few of them.

CHRIS: Right.

BLAIR:: I’m overwhelmed actually but also seeing the satellite there in the white room being wrapped up and ready to be shipped down to Kennedy. It was amazing.

FRANKLIN: Yeah. It’s not everyday you get that kind of access. It was really good to be there.

BLAIR:: We’ll be right back. We’ll talk about LCROSS. You’re watching NASA EDGE.

CHRIS: An inside and outside look at all things…

FRANKLIN: NASA. Let me tell you man…


FRANKLIN: Welcome back to NASA Edge.

BLAIR:: An inside and outside look at all things NASA.

CHRIS: Before we get to LCROSS, we want to introduce a special guest. I forgot to introduce him at the beginning of the vodcast. We have Spooner, who is the official mascot for the Exploration Technology Development Program.

BLAIR:: There’s an inner office bet. Who will know more about LRO and LCROSS after the show, myself or Spooner?

CHRIS: Do you want to take dibs on who knows more, Franklin?

FRANKLIN: I’m going to give it to



BLAIR:, okay.

BLAIR:: Nice. Nice. The odds are on the chimp.

CHRIS: Who do we have on the phone?

BLAIR:: We’re going to talk with Jennifer Heldmann. She is our LCROSS expert. Thanks for coming on the show.

JENNIFER: Thanks, my pleasure.

BLAIR:: We talked about what LCROSS is but exactly does it do?

JENNIFER: LCROSS is a very cool mission. We’re going to impact the north or south poles of the moon. When you make a big impact you kick up a lot of dust, dirt, and debris, maybe water ice if it’s there. That’s our real reason for going, trying to see if there’s water ice on the moon. We have this impact vehicle and right behind it we have a shepherding spacecraft that follows and flies right through that plume and makes measurements to send back to the earth. We’re going to use that data to try determine if there’s water ice on the moon.

CHRIS: You said it was the north or south pole. Has that decision been made yet?

JENNIFER: We’re looking at candidate craters in regions in both the north and south. We’re using all of the data from all the international lunar missions that are out there to try and pick the best spot to impact. The key is to impact in one of these permanently shadowed regions which literally have not seen the sunlight in billions of years. Therefore, it is very, very cold and a good place to trap water ice. There’s permanently shadowed regions at both the north and south poles. We’ll be going to one of those areas and that’s where we’ll be impacting.

BLAIR:: What exactly is going to impact the moon?

JENNIFER: We are taking the upper stage of the launch vehicle and driving that to the moon with the shepherding spacecraft. Several hours before impact, the upper stage of the launch vehicle, the centaur, and the shepherding spacecraft will separate. The centaur, which is essentially a big, empty can at this point, will impact the moon at 2 ½ km/second. You have a big hunk of metal that is slamming into the moon. When you do that, you’re going to kick up all the dust and debris. That’s what we’re going to be measuring.

CHRIS: Are we going to be doing any damage to the lunar surface as the centaur upper stage impacts the lunar surface?

JENNIFER: There are impacts of this amount of energy that happen on the moon several times every month. When we impact, we’ll create a new crater but not a very big one compared to the size of the moon. It will be about 1/3 of a football field wide and about 16 feet deep. That’s not so large on the scale of lunar craters.

BLAIR:: We won’t be able to see it on a telescope.

JENNIFER: We think if you have a moderate size amateur telescope, 10-12 inch, you should be able to see some of the impact.

FRANKLIN: Oh wow. That’s great.

JENNIFER: It’s a good opportunity for people to go out in their backyards and do some observing.

FRANKLIN: How high off the surface is this impact suppose to throw the debris? And how far trailing behind the impact will the spacecraft fly through the debris.

JENNIFER: Most of the debris will be with in 10 km of the surface. Compared to the size of the moon, that’s not too, too high. The shepherding spacecraft that is following behind is only four minutes behind. We talk about this a lot on the project. There’s four minutes to collect all of this data, so it’s a really important four minutes. It’s a lot of work for four minutes worth of data but we’re going to learn a lot.

CHRIS: I know NASA is looking at the potential of Shackleton Rim Crater as being a potential of the Lunar Outpost. Will that impact affect that crater or will it be far away from that region?

JENNIFER: We haven’t located the final impact location yet because we’re taking in the data from all the international missions and from NASA missions. When LRO gets there, we’ll have several months of LRO data to further refine the impact point. There are candidate craters but the exact location hasn’t been decided yet.

BLAIR:: It’s like landscaping. If it’s nearby Shackleton, you might say you have this nice, aesthetic LCROSS crater that’s near our driveway.

FRANKLIN: Is LCROSS going to map this pre and post impact?

JENNIFER: Actually LRO will. LRO will take data before and also after and also some of the other international missions that are there too. We’ll be comparing what we observe with the LCROSS impacts with previous data. Hydrogen maps, where the permanent shadow is and combine as many data sets as we possibly can. We also have professional and amateur astronomers right here on earth that will be collecting observations too. All of that will be folded in and the science team will look at all of the data to try and learn as much as we possibly can from this experiment.

BLAIR:: You mentioned the international data that’s being gathered. Are you going to take that data we get from LCROSS and share that with international partners as well?

JENNIFER: Absolutely. It’s a two way street. We’re already working with international scientists as well. We’re looking at their data sets and they’re going to be able to look at our data sets. It’s all part of putting it under a big umbrella of broadening our scientific knowledge and learning as much as we can.

BLAIR:: I can’t wait.

CHRIS: I’m looking forward to it. It will be cool to see it impact the surface.

BLAIR:: We’re going to have to get an amateur telescope, put it on top of the studio and see if we can watch it happen.

CHRIS: That’s right.

JENNIFER: Yeah, it’s going to be awesome.

CHRIS: Jennifer, thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule, help us out and learn a little more about LCROSS.

JENNIFER: My pleasure, thanks for the opportunity.

BLAIR:: All right, we’ll talk to you soon.

JENNIFER: Okay, thanks.

FRANKLIN: Thank you.

BLAIR:: Did you hear what you said? She said 4 minutes of data. There’s a very small window. That’s one of the most important four minutes we’re going to see in a long time. That’s pretty impressive.

FRANKLIN: Dust is going to be lingering in the air for a while.

BLAIR:: And to fly a spacecraft into that. That’s exciting.

CHRIS: The question I have is will the spacecraft flying into it will it have to have a mask to protect itself?

BLAIR:: A little oxygen sensor?

FRANKLIN: It’s going to have to have a mad air filter in that jet.

BLAIR:: Not one of those 2nd tier jobs at HQ either. It’s got to be the allergen filter.

CHRIS: You’re watching NASA EDGE.

BLAIR:: An inside and outside look at all things NASA and LCROSS.

CHRIS: Yeah.

BLAIR:: Which is very interesting.

CHRIS: That’s true.

BLAIR:: Very good. Good job, Franklin.


CHRIS: Welcome back to NASA EDGE.

BLAIR:: I’m sitting here thinking about this LRO, LCROSS brilliance.

CHRIS: What about it?

BLAIR:: I’ve got a question.

CHRIS: Cool mission.

BLAIR:: Very cool mission but roll with me on this quickly. I’m a brilliant scientist and I’ve developed LRO and LCROSS. Franklin, help me out if you can. I’ve developed this.

CHRIS: You’re dreaming.

BLAIR:: Hypothetical.

CHRIS: Hypothetical, gotcha.

BLAIR:: I’m sitting here with the plans and I’m saying, “Man, this is brilliant. How am I going to get this to space?” Who determines how it gets to space.

FRANKLIN: The magic eight ball.

BLAIR:: NASA eight ball.

CHRIS: Well, they have the mission program. The mission office gets together. They figure out what the master requirements are for the spacecrafts, the size and dimensions, and they pick the appropriate launch vehicle.

BLAIR:: So, in this case the Atlas 5.

CHRIS: Atlas 5, correct.

BLAIR:: Okay, I’ve picked the vehicle. Where do I get one?

FRANKLIN: The Atlas 5 superstore located down in Florida.

[all laughing]

CHRIS: Let’s call our folks at the Launch Services Program down at Kennedy and talk to Tiffany.

BLAIR:: All right. Let’s do that.

CHRIS: Ron, could you get a hold of her.

BLAIR: All right, guys follow my lead on this.

CHRIS: I’m not going to say a word.

TIFFANY: Flight Projects Office, this is Tiffany.

BLAIR: Yes, hi. I have some plans here that are as brilliant as LRO and LCROSS. I’m wondering how I get them into space.

TIFFANY: Is this Blair from NASA EDGE?

BLAIR: No. It’s a really smart engineer with some great plans.

TIFFANY: Oh, well then I know this is Blair.

BLAIR: Good call. Hey Tiffany.

TIFFANY: Hey Blair, how are you doing?

BLAIR: Doing fine. I’ve got a LSP question for you. I’m wondering in the case of LRO and LCROSS, how do I get that into space from a Launch Service Program perspective?

TIFFANY: Let’s take LRO and LCROSS for example. Right now they’re going to spacecraft processing. They’re doing a spin balance. They’re going through simulations of what would happen with the spacecraft and the launch vehicle, the Atlas 5. They’re preparing and going through all those tests, charging batteries, fueling, defueling and getting ready. On the other side of the spectrum, you’ve got the launch vehicle. Mind you Launch Service Program is working with both entities, the spacecraft side and the launch vehicle side.

BLAIR: You’re like the deal broker.

TIFFANY: We are.

CHRIS: It’s a big responsibility.

TIFFANY: It is a huge responsibility. We start off as a consultant and that could be 10 to 3 years. We’re working with you guys from the very beginning.

BLAIR: What do I have to do to push the launch button?

TIFFANY: Well Blair, you don’t get to push the launch button.

FRANKLIN: Is there a one-size fits all rocket down there for getting spacecraft.

TIFFANY: There is that. We’ve got a medium class, which is a Delta II. You’ve got the Atlas 5, which is a heavy, and Pegasus, which is a small.

CHRIS: I know we’re talking about LCROSS and LRO but Blair really wants to get up into space. He’s looking for a launch vehicle that will get him up to the moon.

BLAIR: Minimal supplies.

CHRIS: I’m figuring Pegasus is probably good from him, huh?

TIFFANY: For Blair, sure why not?

BLAIR: I don’t take a lot. I pack light and I’ve lost some weight recently.

FRANKLIN: Are all these ground based launch systems for all these rockets, Tiffany?

TIFFANY: The Pegasus is not. It drops from an L-1011 airplane.

BLAIR: Good ear.

CHRIS: Get that parachute with you just in case.


BLAIR: Yeah, just in case I have to bail out. Thanks a lot Tiffany. I appreciate it. I’ll be talking to you in the future about coordinating the Pegasus rocket for me.

TIFFANY: I look forward to it, Blair. Take care guys.

CHRIS: All right Tiffany. Have a good one.

BLAIR: Wow! Launch Services Program answering all the questions.

CHRIS: Answering the questions? What about L-1011, the Pegasus rocket from Franklin?

BLAIR: Excellent reference.

FRANKLIN: I try to do what I can.

CHRIS: Where did you get the 411 on that one?

FRANKLIN: Works every time.

BLAIR: He’s like a champ, right on the money.

FRANKLIN: Actually, some of the Mission Madness missions were launched with the Pegasus rockets. The X-43 program from NASA was launched from the B-52. It’s an alternative to ground based launch systems.

BLAIR: That’s an excellent point. My question is can the Pegasus be modified for a manned flight?

CHRIS: Maybe for a co-host. It’s kind of small.

FRANKLIN: You just have to put a cot in there.

BLAIR: On a more serious note, one thing I’m wondering about Launch Services is I did not hear mentioned the shuttle.

CHRIS: It’s separate. What Tiffany is responsible for in Launch services is for the unmanned missions, Atlas 5, Delta II, the Pegasus rocket. The shuttle is a completely different group.

BLAIR: I have to have a two-pronged approach. I’m going to try to get on the shuttle and the alternative.

CHRIS: You’re not going to get on the shuttle. Go for the LSP side. We’re looking forward to the launch of LRO and LCROSS coming up here soon.


CHRIS: Before we go, I want to give a quick shout out to some new NASA EDGE fans. We have Michael and Robert in Sunapee, NH. They watch our show.

BLAIR: Great breakfast.

CHRIS: I guess I said that correctly. I apologize if I’m mispronouncing that. They watch the show every morning before they go to work.

BLAIR: Be sure to tie your shows before you head to school.

CHRIS: That’s right.

BLAIR: Just a little parental advice from NASA EDGE.

CHRIS: You’re watching NASA EDGE.

FRANKLIN: An inside and outside look at all things NASA.

BLAIR: And eating a good breakfast is essential as you know to starting the day right.

FRANKLIN: Thanks for giving me the memo that we’re wearing our pajamas to the set today.

CHRIS: See, in the studio you’re okay. We’ve got EDGE all over the place.

FRANKLIN: But you guys look like you have pajamas on. Those things look like footies. Chris, it looks like you have footie pajamas on, dude.

CHRIS: Hey man, this is the casual look.

FRANKLIN: For the record, Chris has on footie pajamas. And Blair has on a onesie.

BLAIR: Oh, it’s riding.

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