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NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Gets New Moon Mission

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NASA's latest lunar probe has wrapped up the exploration phase of its moon-watching mission and is shifting into pure science gear to help scientists better understand Earth's nearest neighbor.

Until now, the powerful Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter had been scouting the moon to help NASA plan for future lunar exploration missions.

"LRO has been an outstanding success. The spacecraft has performed brilliantly," said Doug Cooke, associate administrator of NASA's exploration systems mission directorate, in a statement. "LRO's science and engineering teams achieved all of the mission's objectives, and the incredible data LRO gathered will provide discoveries about the moon for years to come." [ 10 Coolest New Moon Discoveries ]

Moon probe's success

NASA launched the $504 million LRO probe in June 2009 along with a piggyback probe that crashed into the shadows of a crater at the moon's south pole in October of that year in a hunt for water ice, which it found. The spacecraft is about the size of a Mini Cooper car and equipped with seven instruments to observe the moon.

From its polar orbit 31 miles (50 km) up, LRO produced a comprehensive map of the lunar surface in unprecedented detail, NASA officials said.

The probe has also searched for resources and safe landing sites for potential future missions to the moon, measured lunar temperatures and radiation levels and helped confirm the presence of water on the moon.

LRO's new mission phase will be more focused on answering specific research questions than on broad exploration, NASA officials said. The probe will continue to map the moon for two to four more years, they added.

"The official start of LRO's science phase should write a new and intriguing chapter in lunar research," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's science mission directorate.

Lunar legacy

LRO was no slouch during its exploration mission.

When the spacecraft finishes transmitting all of the moon observations and data it gathered during the past year, it will have beamed more information home to NASA databases than all other previous planetary missions combined, agency officials said. That information has had a profound impact on our understanding of the moon, they added.

For example, LRO helped confirm the presence of water on the moon along with other lunar probes from Japan and India. When its piggyback probe, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite or LCROSS, smashed into the lunar surface in October 2009, LRO's instruments detected water-ice in the resulting impact plume.

LRO has also found that parts of the moon are colder than Pluto. The probe measured a location in the moon's Hermite Crater at minus 415 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 248 degrees Celsius). The surface of Pluto, which is much farther from the sun's warmth, likely only gets down to about minus 300 F (minus 184 C), researchers have said.

In addition, LRO made new observations of the Apollo landing sites and gathered detailed information about lunar terrain. The probe also found the first evidence of widespread lunar thrust faults, which indicate that the moon has recently contracted and may still be shrinking, NASA officials said.

LRO has a robotic moon probe bloodhound. This year, it took high-resolution pictures of the Soviet Union's old Lunokhod 1 rover, which had been lost for almost 40 years.

The spacecraft pinpointed the rover's location to within 150 feet (45 m), allowing researchers on Earth to bounce laser signals off Lunokhod 1's reflector for the first time ever. These signals are providing important new information about the position and motion of the moon.