Video: NASA hopes to answer questions about the Moon

  1. Closed captioning of: NASA hopes to answer questions about the Moon

    >>> finally tonight here on earth this weekend is all about new year's eve. but for a team of nasa scientists, the focus will be a quarter of a million miles away . they will be monitoring a pair of spacecraft orbiting the moon, hoping to answer some age-old questions in what's being described as the biggest moon mission since man first landed there more than 40 years ago. here's nbc's george lewis .

    >> reporter: millions of years ago, earth may have had not one, but two moons. then, according to theory they collided -- an event known as the big splat. that would explain the irregularities on the present day moon. all the valleys on the side we see. all the mountains on the other side.

    >> scientists have not had a good way to track that down yet. this is the going of solving that mystery.

    >> zero, and liftoff of the delta ii , journey to the center of the moon.

    >> reporter: in september, nasa launched two lunar probes aboard the same rocket. they'll chase each other in orbit around the moon to study it from surface to center. the mission will be run from this control room in paspasadena, california. a critical point comes this weekend when the two craft fire to get into orbit around the moon.

    >> this is the big crunch time. this weekend is going to be the time when it comes together or falls apart .

    >> that's one small step for man --

    >> reporter: for nasa it will be the most intense focus on the moon since the days of the apollo program .

    >> it's very challenging but we have done a lot of practicing and we're ready to do that.

    >> reporter: former astronaut sally ride will organize thousands of middle school students to tell nasa what pictures the spacecraft should take with their on-board cameras.

    >> hopefully it will encourage kids to get more involved in science and engineering.

    >> reporter: so this weekend while millions are watching the new year's ball drop in times square , nasa scientists will be watching the other illuminated ball that holds so many mysteries. george lewis , nbc news, pasadena, california.

updated 12/29/2011 8:01:23 PM ET 2011-12-30T01:01:23

Two identical NASA space probes are due to arrive at the moon this weekend to learn what is inside Earth's companion and how it formed.

Among the most interesting questions scientists will attempt to answer is if our moon holds the wrecked body of a lost sibling body.

Evidence of the crash, if it occurred, should be buried inside the moon, in the form of remnant radioactive materials, like uranium and thorium, which would have been heated in the smash-up.

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According to a recently published paper, scientists suspect a second moon once circled Earth in the same orbit and at roughly the same speed as our moon. It eventually bumped into its companion, but instead of causing an impact crater, the second moon stuck and made a mountain. That feature today would be the lunar highlands located on the side of the moon that permanently faces away from Earth.

"One prediction of this model is that the whole exterior of the moon was once molten, and it started to cool off — actually cooled from the outside in — so you were left with a molten channel in the base of the moon's crust," said Maria Zuber, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Simulations show that when the second moon hit our moon, the molten material was pushed around to the near side, traces of which should remain today.

"We're looking for layering in the lower crust," said Zuber, who is the lead researcher on NASA's Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory mission. The $496 million mission is also known by its acronym, Grail.

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Flying in formation 34 miles above the lunar surface, the two Grail spacecraft will map the moon's gravity down to fractions of a micron. A micron is about the width of a red blood cell.

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Scientists can use the precise measurements to model the moon's interior, a key piece of data missing despite more than 100 previous missions to the moon, including excursions made by NASA astronauts during the six Apollo moon landings between 1969 and 1972.

"We believe the moon formed from the impact of a Mars-sized object with Earth, but we understand little really of how this formation happened and how it cooled off after the violent event," Zuber said.

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"One fundamental thing that we don't know about the moon — shockingly after all these missions that have gone to the moon — is why the near side of the moon is different than the far side," she added.

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Grail-A is due to begin a 40-minute braking maneuver to put itself into orbit around the moon at 4:21 p.m. ET on Saturday. Grail-B arrives 25 hours later on New Year's Day.

Both spacecraft are needed to complete the mapping mission, which is scheduled to last 82 days.

"We won't be celebrating a lot until after we get Grail-B into orbit," said project manager David Lehman, with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

It will take two months for the spacecraft to move themselves from their initial lunar orbits into position to begin mapping. If the battery-powered probes survive the next lunar eclipse, scientists want to move them even closer to the moon for a follow-on mission that would provide even more precise measurements.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

Photos: 50 years of views from the moon

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  1. Up-close exploration of the moon, Earth's only natural satellite, began in 1959 when the Soviet Union launched its Luna 1 spacecraft on a flyby mission. NASA quickly followed up with missions of its own. Since then, the Europeans, Japan, China and India have launched their own lunar exploration programs. This view shows the moon as seen from the international space station. Click the "Next" arrow above to check out 11 images from the moon made over the last 50 years. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. 1959: Far side in full view

    In October 1959, the Soviet Union's Luna 3 spacecraft - the third successfully launched to the moon - made history as the first probe to image the far side of the moon. The photos were fixed and dried on the spacecraft and beamed back to Earth. Though fuzzy by today's standards, the images showed stark differences from the near side, including relatively few dark areas, called lunar maria. (RSA via NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. 1966: A restored ‘Earthrise'

    In 1966 and 1967, NASA sent a series of Lunar Orbiter spacecraft to collect detailed images of moon's surface in preparation for the Apollo program. The tapes were then put in storage. Decades later, researchers with the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project collected the vintage hardware required to play back the imagery. That imagery was digitized , reproducing the images at a much higher resolution than previously possible. On Nov. 11, 2008, the project researchers released this enhanced photograph of Earth rising above the lunar surface, originally made by Lunar Orbiter 1 in 1966. (LOIRP / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 1968: The most famous 'Earthrise'

    On Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders made history as the first humans to orbit the moon. They were scouting its surface for a suitable landing spot for future missions. But the sight of Earth rising above the moon's horizon caught their - and the world's - attention. The photograph, called "Earthrise," is among the most famous ever made from the moon. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. 1969: One small step

    On July 20, 1969, an estimated 1 billion people around the world were glued to television screens to watch astronaut Neil Armstrong, commander of Apollo 11, climb down from the lunar module spacecraft for a stroll on the moon. As his foot touched the lunar surface, he famously said "That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind." This image is a black-and-white reproduction from the telecast, showing Armstrong stepping down from the lunar module's ladder. (NASA Johnson Space Center) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. 1969: Man on the moon

    Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, shown here, accompanied Armstrong for the famous walk on the moon. This iconic image is one of the few that shows Armstrong on the lunar surface - as seen in the reflection on the spacesuit's visor. The astronauts walked around on the lunar surface for about two and a half hours. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. 1994: Looking for ice

    This mosaic image of the moon's southern polar region, made by the Clementine spacecraft in 1994, suggested that the region could harbor water ice within regions of its craters that are never lit by the sun. The water ice would be left over from impacting comets. Scientists have debated the evidence for and against water ice at the poles ever since the Clementine discovery. The current era of lunar exploration could resolve the debate. If water ice exists, it could help quench the thirst of future human colonists and be used to make fuel for rockets. (NASA / JPL / USGS) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. 2006: European moon probe crashes

    On Sept. 3, 2006, the European Space Agency's SMART-1 spacecraft went out with a bang - a planned crash landing into a volcanic plain called the Lake of Excellence. The impact, shown here, was captured by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. (The black lines are a processing error due to the brightness of the event.) The spacecraft was launched in 2003 primarily to test an ion propulsion system, which uses energy captured by the sun to produce a stream of charged particles. The slow-and-steady propulsion system may be used on future interplanetary missions. (Christian Veillet / CFHT via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. 2007: China targets the moon

    China made its first major strides in the lunar exploration game with the launch of the Chang'e 1 spacecraft in October 2007. The orbiter was sent to make a detailed, 3-D map of the moon's surface. Premier Wen Jiabao unveiled the first image at a ceremony in Beijing, shown here. Chang'e 1's 16-month mission ended with a controlled crash. The country reportedly plans to launch lunar rovers in 2010 and 2017, and a manned mission to the moon by 2020. (Huang Jingwen / XINHUA NEWS AGENCY) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. 2008: India joins the lunar club

    The Indian Space Research Organization successfully launched its Chandrayaan 1 spacecraft on Oct. 22, 2008, for a mapping mission to the moon. A probe released from the mothership took this picture of the lunar surface during its descent to a planned crash landing at the south pole. The Indian space agency plans to use this and other data for a lunar rover mission in 2011 and, eventually, a manned mission. (ISRO via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. 2009: Japan orbiter watches eclipse

    Some eclipse enthusiasts travel the globe to glimpse alignments of the sun, Earth and moon. Japan's Kaguya probe did them one better: It shot this sequence of a Feb. 10, 2009, eclipse from its lunar orbit. The image shows the view of the sun from the moon mostly covered by Earth. The "ring" appears dark at the bottom because it is obscured by the night-darkened limb of the moon. The Kaguya orbiter was launched in September 2007 to study the moon's origin and evolution. It made a controlled crash landing on the moon in June 2009. (JAXA / NHK) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. 2009: NASA goes back to the moon

    On June 18, 2009, NASA launched two spacecraft to the moon to map its surface in unprecedented detail, scout for future landing sites, and smash probes into a permanently shaded crater in hopes of resolving a longstanding debate over whether such regions contain water ice. NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will orbit both poles for a year, and its mission could be extended to serve as a communications relay for future lunar missions. This is one of the first pictures sent back by the orbiter. LRO's sibling, the crater-smacking LCROSS probe, is due to impact the moon's south pole in October. (NASA / GSFC / ASU) Back to slideshow navigation
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