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SPIE Professional July 2012

Moon Over Montana

A student-run planetary camera sends back images of the far side of the moon to future engineers and scientists.

An eerie image of the pockmarked, far side of the Moon, with Earth in the background, was chosen by a group of fourth-grade students in the United States as one of the first pictures to be beamed back to Earth from a pair of NASA spacecraft.

Students at Emily Dickinson Elementary School in Bozeman, MT, earned the honor of selecting the first “MoonKam” photographs after winning an essay competition to re-name the lunar-mapping orbiters to Ebb and Flow.

  Students in this classroom at the Emily Dickinson Elementary School in Bozeman, MT, provided the winning proposal in NASA’s contest of renaming the twin GRAIL spacecraft. (Courtesy UCSD)

They selected an initial package of 66 lunar images taken by the MoonKam system aboard the Ebb spacecraft in March. MoonKam, or Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students, is a system of eight cameras aboard the two washing-machine-sized orbiters previously named GRAIL A and B, for the NASA mission Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory. Flying in tandem, the orbiters are set to create the most accurate gravitational map of the Moon to date.

GRAIL is also NASA’s first planetary mission to carry instruments expressly dedicated to education and public outreach. Thousands of students in 2,700 schools across the globe will select target areas on the lunar surface and request images to study.

Picture worth a thousand words

“MoonKAM is based on the premise that if your average picture is worth a thousand words, then a picture from lunar orbit may be worth a classroom full of engineering and science degrees,” says MIT’s Maria Zuber, the principal investigator on the project. “Through MoonKAM, we have an opportunity to reach out to the next generation of scientists and engineers.”

  Half of Earth is illuminated in this MoonKam image selected by students in Montana. A little more than half way up on the left is the crater De Forest, named for American inventor Lee De Forest. Due to its proximity to the southern pole, De Forest receives sunlight at an oblique angle when it is on the illuminated half of the Moon. (Photo courtesy NASA, Caltech-JPL, MIT, and SRS.)

The MoonKAM program is led by Sally Ride, America’s first woman in space, and her team at Sally Ride Science in collaboration with undergraduates at the University of California in San Diego, the Jet Propulsion Lab, and the Marshall Space Flight Center.

“What might seem like just a cool activity for these kids may very well have a profound impact on their futures,” Ride says. “The students really are excited about MoonKAM, and that translates into an excitement about science and engineering.”

Launched in September 2011, Ebb and Flow will answer longstanding questions about the moon’s interior and thermal history and give scientists a better understanding of how Earth and other rocky planets in the solar system formed.

Source: NASA, Sally Ride Science, and Ken Kremer of Universe Today.

Note: This article was written and published before the July death of Sally Ride.

Gravity map is GRAIL goal

The GRAIL mission places two spacecraft into the same orbit around the Moon. As they fly over areas of greater and lesser gravity, caused both by visible features such as mountains and craters and by masses hidden beneath the lunar surface, they will move slightly toward and away from each other.

An instrument aboard each spacecraft will precisely measure the changes in their relative velocity, and scientists will translate this information into a high-resolution map of the Moon’s gravitational field.

The GRAIL MoonKAM will engage middle schools across the United States in the GRAIL mission and lunar exploration.


Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.


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DOI: 10.1117/2.4201207.22

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