The Lunar Precursor Robotic Program (LPRP) is a program of robotic spacecraft missions which NASA will use to prepare for future human spaceflight missions to the Moon by 2010. Two LPRP missions, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), were launched in June 2009. The lift off above Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida was successful on June 18, 2009. The unmanned Atlas V rocket launched the two space probes towards the Moon, where they will provide a 3-D map and search for water in conjunction with the Hubble Space Telescope. The launch date, originally planned for October 2008, was shifted to Thursday from Wednesday (June 17) due to a postponement of the Saturday (June 13) launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, resulting from a hydrogen fuel leak. This lunar program marks the first United States mission to the Moon in over ten years.Neil Armstrong's first step on the Moon occurred July 20, 1969, and this launch was just 32 days shy of the 40th anniversary. The actual journey to the Moon will take about four days, at which time the LRO will enter a low orbit around the Moon, while the LCROSS mission will perform a "swing-by" to enter a much different orbit to set up for a collision with the Moon's surface several months later. Projected lunar impact of the Centaur and LCROSS spacecraft is on October 9, 2009 at 11:30 UT (7:30 a.m. EDT, 4:30 a.m. PDT), ± 30 minutes. The plume from the Centaur impact may be visible through telescopes with apertures as small as 10 to 12 inches (300 mm).
The Atlas V-Centaur rocket carrying the LRO and LCROSS just after take off.
Initially, the LPRP program was a part of the Science Mission Directorate of NASA (SMD) and was called the Robotic Lunar Exploration Program (RLEP). Management of the RLEP program was assigned to Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in February, 2004. At that time, the Program's goal was to "...initiate a series of robotic missions to the Moon to prepare for and support future human exploration activities." In 2005, responsibility for RLEP was moved to NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) and management assigned to the Ames Research Center (ARC). In 2006, the program was renamed to the Lunar Precursor Robotic Program and management responsibility reassigned to the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC). The US$583 million space mission comes equipped with a $504 million state of the art 4,200 pounds (1,900 kg) LRO space probe and a $79 million LCROSS satellite.
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is the first mission of the LPRP program. Management of LRO was assigned to Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in 2004. LRO launched on an Atlas V 401 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on June 18, 2009 at 5:32 p.m. EDT (2132 GMT). The planned lift off for 5:12 p.m. EDT (2112 GMT) was slightly delayed by 20 minutes due to thunderstorms. It will orbit the Moon for one year, gathering high resolution images of the lunar surface that will allow the creation of detailed maps. LRO's goals include finding safe landing sites for human visits to the Moon, identifying lunar resources, and studying the lunar radiation environment. The LRO will provide a 3-D map of the Moon's surface to allow astronauts to return to the Moon by 2020. On board the LRO are seven instruments, the Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation (CRaTER), Diviner Lunar Radiometer Experiment (DLRE), Lyman-Alpha Mapping Project (LAMP), Lunar Exploration Neutron Detector (LEND), Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA), Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC), and Miniature Radio Frequency radar (Mini-RF).
The Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission is co-manifested with LRO. It was selected as a secondary payload in 2006, and management of the program was assigned to Ames Research Center (ARC). The mission will explore a permanently shadowed region of a lunar pole by crashing the 2,300 pounds (1,000 kg) spent Centaur rocket upper stage of the Atlas V launch vehicle into a dark crater. The composition of the ejecta plume will be observed by a shepherding spacecraft, which will itself crash-land 4 minutes later, creating a second plume. NASA expects the impact velocity will be over 9,000 km/h (5,600 mph). The ejecta plume will be in the order of 350 tons (317 metric tons) and rise 6 miles (9.7 km) from the surface.
As LRO and LCROSS send back high-resolution data, the Lunar Mapping and Modeling project will use those data to develop detailed topographic maps of the lunar surface. In addition, solar radiation levels will be mapped and modeled. These integrated data will be used to make decisions about, for example, lunar outpost designs.
A mission planned for 2013, LADEE will measure dust particulates before any human presence disturbs it.