By recycling to the moon
Next month, a low-cost spacecraft will begin scanning the moon's surface for signs of water and conducting further analysis. Not a single component of the Lunar Prospector was newly developed for this mission, all parts have been proven in previous projects - an extreme one Example of NASA's new strategy. The Lunar Prospector only costs $63 million. It is only the third NASA mission to the moon in the last 20 years and the first purely scientific visit in a full 25 years. The last trip to the moon was made by the Clementine probe, which was primarily intended for military tests.
The new project started eight years ago as a private tinkering project by young engineers and scientists who mixed together donated hardware components. Accordingly, the current version is a paragon of simplicity: the probe has no computer, which means that it cannot make its own decisions, but relies on commands from Earth. In fact, none of the scientific instruments for this mission have been developed, and all have already completed a flight. Even the cheap launch system, the Lockheed Martin Athena II, was assembled from solid-propelled rocket motors for submarine-launched cruise missiles.
About 105 hours after launch on January 5, 1998, the Lunar Prospector will enter orbit around the moon. There he will take a close look at the surface, three quarters of which has still not been examined in detail. "We've only scratched the surface of the moon so far," says Michael Drake of the University of Arizona.
At an altitude of only 100 kilometers, the probe will look for traces of water ice, which is permanently frozen at the poles in permanent shadow. In addition, the five instruments are used to create maps of the element composition, from which conclusions can be drawn about the formation of the Earth's satellite (see "The moon formed with a big bang";, spectrum ticker of November 15, 1997). Measurements of the gravitational field provide insights into the inner structure of the celestial body. Overall, the mission is scheduled for one year, with an option for a six-month extension.