Monday, March 24, 2008

To the moon: Northrop Grumman aims for a big hit with lunar satellite

By Muhammed El-Hasan, Staff Writer
Long Beach Press-Telegram

  • » Timeline for manned moon bases
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  • NASA's plan to establish permanent manned bases on the moon may hinge on the results of a "suicide mission" by a spacecraft that resembles a 6-foot-diameter sewer pipe.

    The Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite is scheduled to launch this autumn in search of ice on the moon that would help astronauts sustain long-term stays on the lunar surface.

    In the process, the spacecraft dubbed LCROSS will smash into a dark crater that has never seen sunlight at the moon's south pole.

    Northrop Grumman Space Technology is building and testing the satellite at the company's Space Park campus in Redondo Beach.

    "Ours is a suicide mission. When we impact, we don't survive," said Stewart Moses, Northrop's director of space science and exploration for civil missions. "The vast majority of our spacecraft are built to last a very long time. Suicide missions are not very common."

    LCROSS differs from most other space missions in another major way: The satellite was an afterthought that will piggyback on another lunar mission.

    In early 2006, NASA decided to use a larger-than-planned rocket for a mission called the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or LRO, which would circle the moon to map the giant globe's surface.

    The new rocket, known as the Centaur, can carry about 2,000 more pounds. NASA announced that it was seeking ideas for a secondary mission to coincide with the LRO.

    Northrop proposed LCROSS, and NASA accepted.

    "We came up with this idea of impacting the surface of the moon," Moses said. "The idea is that one way to find out if there's ice on the moon is to slam something really heavy and hard on the moon. With the right instruments, we're looking to see if there's ice or other interesting materials left by comets other than the dirt that makes up the moon."

    The idea arose from a 1999 NASA lunar mission that observed neutrons coming from the moon's north and south poles, a possible sign of water.

    When the Centaur rocket is launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, LRO will separate and begin its mission circling the moon.

    LCROSS and the Centaur's upper stage will enter an egg-shaped orbit around the Earth and moon for about three months.

    When the moon is in the optimal position, the Centaur rocket will detach from LCROSS. The rocket will then lurch toward the moon at 6,000 mph as LCROSS follows a number of minutes behind.

    Centaur will smash into a south pole lunar crater, causing a miles-high plume of moon dust. LCROSS will fly through that plume, taking pictures and sending them back to Earth.

    Then LCROSS will smash into the crater, causing another giant plume that will be examined by LRO, observatories on the Earth and even amateur astronomers.

    Unlike most of Northrop's satellite programs, LCROSS runs on a small budget. The total contract is valued at $79million, with $56 million as Northrop's share. That's far less expensive than Northrop's typical spacecraft contract that can be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

    Furthermore, the development schedule demanded break-neck speed, with little time to create innovations that usually take years to perfect.

    "We have to not only build this for much less cost than a normal spacecraft (but) we have to do it in two years," said Stephen Carman, Northrop's project manager for LCROSS.

    Instead of building a whole new spacecraft from scratch, Northrop engineers took an ESPA Ring, which is a large "pipe" with six holes around it. Typically, the ring is used to mount spacecraft that are being launched into space.

    For LCROSS, the ring became the spacecraft. Sensors and other equipment were simply bolted onto it.

    In addition, the ESPA Ring will be sturdy enough for LRO to sit on it during launch and before separation.

    Northrop engineers went on a shopping spree to buy all the components and systems they needed for LCROSS.

    "These are all off-the-shelf items," Moses said. "We couldn't invent anything new, which is what we usually do in our missions."

    NASA may use the speed and low cost of LCROSS as a blueprint for future missions, said Dan Andrews, project manager for LCROSS at NASA Ames Research Center near Sunnyvale.

    Because LCROSS is being built so quickly and on the cheap, without the usual redundancies and large workforce, the spacecraft is classified as a highest-risk mission, known as Class D.

    LCROSS remains on schedule and within its budget. A successful mission could lead NASA to try more such Class D missions. That would mean the space agency could use the resulting savings to launch additional missions, Andrews said.

    "Because LCROSS has demonstrated it is very successful in being on time and on budget, people are starting (to notice)," Andrews said.