With three of its six instruments on board, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is finally taking shape. But the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center team building the nearly $600 million spacecraft
still is awaiting delivery of two important mapping instruments and a small experimental payload.


Craig Tooley, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter program manager, said in a March 28 e-mail that two instruments – the Lyman-Alpha Mapping Project and the Diviner Lunar Radiometer Experiment – had been installed successfully
in the past month and that a third instrument, a cosmic ray telescope built by Boston University, was ready for installation.


Boston University Professor Harlan Spence, the instrument’s principal investigator, told Space News March 31 that the Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effect of Radiation, or Crater for short, was being prepared for installation the next day. “We’re excited to finally be going on,” he said.


In the past month, the LRO team took delivery of the Lunar Exploration Neutron Detector from Russia and began thermal vacuum testing the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter, a Goddard-built instrument that won’t be considered delivered until it exits acceptance testing.


The other mapping instrument yet to arrive is the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, which is being built by San Diego-based Malin Space Science Systems under the direction of principal investigator Mark Robinson, a planetary geologist at Arizona State University.


The LRO Camera consists of two narrow angle cameras and a single wide angle camera that together will permit LRO to image the lunar surface down to half-meter resolution.


Robinson said March 31 that the wide angle camera
already had been fully tested and packaged for shipping, while the first of the two narrow angle cameras was just a few days away from undergoing its “final focus sanity check” at Malin. The second narrow angle camera, meanwhile, was undergoing vibration tests at a San Diego-area subcontractor in preparation for being recalibrated and sent to the University of California, San Diego, for thermal vacuum testing. Robinson said the LRO Camera was on track to ship out by the end of April.


LRO is slated to launch before year’s end from Cape
Canaveral, Fla., aboard an Atlas 5 rocket. Coming
along for the ride will be an instrument that is even
finished – the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS. The objective of the roughly $80 million LCROSS piggy-back mission is to send the Atlas 5’s spent Centaur upper stage hurtling into a permanently shadowed crater near the Moon’s south pole while a budget-class satellite fashioned from the rocket’s secondary payload adapter ring scans the ejected material for signs of water before augering into the lunar surface itself.


Northrop Grumman spokeswoman Sally Koris said March 31 that LCROSS is nearly fully assembled and due to complete its comprehensive performance testing in April. If all goes well, LCROSS will leave the clean room in May and enter environmental testing with the objective of finishing up in time to be shipped from Redondo Beach, Calif., to Cape Canaveral in August.


LCROSS is a joint effort between Northrop Grumman and NASA Ames Research Center, which earlier this year sent Northrop a fully
integrated LCROSS instrument module consisting of nine separate instruments mounted on a panel roughly the size of a typical LCD flat-panel television. The nine instruments consist of five cameras, three spectrometers and single photometer.


Doug Cooke, NASA deputy associate administrator for exploration systems, told Goddard contractors and employees at the Maryland Space Business Roundtable’s March 24 luncheon, that LRO integration and testing was going well. But NASA officials
also have been very up front that meeting the mission’s late October launch readiness date could prove impossible given that the project has no schedule slack remaining. As such, NASA has reserved back-up launch dates at the Cape in November and December.


NASA says it is committed to launching LRO before the end of the year, a deadline with its origins in President George W. Bush’s January 2004 Vision for Space Exploration speech, which called for sending robotic missions to the Moon starting no later than 2008.


In a follow-up e-mail March 31, Tooley said the team still expects to meet the president’s deadline, if not the October launch date.


“We are still targeting [Oct. 28] but are running a few weeks behind hitting that date, partly because of the last two instruments,” he wrote. “We are still comfortable with beating our deadline of launching in 2008.”

Comments: bberger@space.com