2 October 2010

Double Lasers Shoot the Moon

Some guys have all the luck.  September 18 marked the first ever International Observe the Moon Night (which is referred to as InOMN) which is set to become an annual event.  Visitors at the NASA Goddard Visitor Center in Maryland were in for a treat.

They were able to watch as not one but two green lines pierced the sky above the Space Center. These lasers were aimed at the moon not to repel an alien invasion or to detect a battle fleet but the aim of the procedure was detection.  The lasers were tracking our own spacecraft.

The object they were seeking was the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.   The lasers fire twenty eight times a second and travels a quarter of a million miles.  The LRO is itself moving at 3,600 miles per hour as it proceeds on its orbit around the moon and it is only the size of a minivan. This is an artist's impression of what they were after.

This is the first attempt to track a space ship through laser ranging and it produces – amazingly – measurements of distance that are accurate to about four inches.  A telescope on the Goodard Campus is used to direct the laser pulses towards the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.  Knowing the speed of the laser is paramount as the distance from earth to the LRO is determined by measuring the length of time it took the lasers to reach it.

You may have noticed that the beams in some of the pictures seem to be coming from above.  This is an illusion - they are in fact coming from a secondary ground system at the facility.