Saturday, September 10, 2011

A historic journey to the centre of the moon---The Grail Mission. Personal Memories

        On Thursday, ``Beyond Moon and Mars (BMM)'' was watching the Grail launch coverage on Nasa TV from about 4 p.m. (IST),

         The excitement was steadily building up and the the moment was nearing.

         At T-37 minutes ie exactly 37 minutes prior to lift off all stations reported ready. Then came the announcement that Nasa's Grail A will reach the moon on New Years's Eve and Grail-B on January 1,2012. The `go' was repeated at 5.40 p.m. and seven minutes later came the announcement that there were no issues and the weather was green. In plain terms it means that the weather was `go' for launch.

         The launch readiness was repeated at regular intervals, but around 6 .05 p.m. it was stated that ``We are red on the upper level winds.''  The launch was resked to about 6.45 p.m.

          At 6.36 p.m. during the final readiness poll, all stations were a `go' for launch. ``The Nasa team is ready for launch,'' came the announcement.

          But four minutes later ie at 6.40 p.m. there was no change in the upper level winds and the mission was scrubbed. This happened again on Friday, and on Saturday the launch could not take place in the first attempt.

           BMM had to go out on Saturday evening and its friend, Pradeep, continuosly kept in touch regarding the launch position. Thank U Pradeep. At one point he said that the launch was just 20 minutes away. BMM was terribly disappointed that it would be missing the coverage on Nasa TV. But, it could not do anything about it, what with the worsening traffic scenario in Mumbai.

           Then Pradeep called again and gave a very good news while BMM was shopping with his daughter, Rimanika, for our dog, Dora, at Kemps Corner. The lift off was again resked because the upper level winds were once again playing spoilt sport. He said that the next attempt was at 6.38 p.m. BMM hoped and prayed it would make it this time.

           At that moment BMM and Rimanika were in the dog shop and the Saturday evening traffic was pretty bad at Kemps Corner. At 6.20 p.m. the purchases for our Dora were over and BMM called for the vehicle. Eighteen minutes left for the lunar mission. BMM kept its fingers crossed and hoped that the car would come soon. It took quite some time to reach the shop.  Rimanika and BMM quickly dumped the packages into the vehicle, jumped into the car and requested the driver to rush home because there was an important mission ahead!!!! Obviously he could not understand what BMM meant.

          BMM did not want to miss an important flight like the Grail mission. 

           Just 10 minutes left for the lift off! The driver took an u turn and drove home, Pedder Road was fortunately empty which is something unusual on a Saturday evening. Down Sophia College lane and there was heavy traffic on Breach Candy.  My God!

           We reached home at 6.35 p.m., ran into BMM's room and at once activated the computer and accessed Nasa TV. All the workers who are doing carpentry work at our flat, stopped banging and hammering left their instruments including the supervisor, Mohan and our driver, Ravi, came to BMM's room to witness the take off.. Yes, we could see the rocket ready to lift off.  BMM had finally made it!  Thank God.

            ``Range is a go for launch,'' the flight commentator Steve Agid announced.

            ``T-1 minutes. 20 secs-15-13-11-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1-0. We have lift off,'' declared Agid.

            ``We have a very good flight. The first and second stages jettisoned on target,'' came the announcement.

            The Grail ---Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL)--was at last on its way to the moon. The much-awaited 496.2 million dollar lunar journey had started. The rocket, the 124-feet tall United Launch Alliance's  Delta 2, and the lift off was from launch pad 17B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

             As against the normal four days to reach the moon, Grail will enter a three-and-a-half month trans-lunar cruise phase which will be a low energy trajectory.

             The crucial lunar orbit insertion will be on December 28,2011, the science phase will begin on March 8, 2012 and the mission will be decommissioned on May 29,2012. 

             SIGNIFICANCE OF THE MISSION.: What is its role. According to Nasa, Grail will unlock the mysteries of the moon hidden below its surface. This is why it known as the journey to the centre of the moon--the first of its kind. It will do so by creating the most accurate gravitational map of the moon to date, improving our knowledge of near-side gravity by 100 times and of the far side by 1000 times,''  it said.

             The high resolution map of the moon's gravitational field especially when combined with a compatible topographical field map, will enable scientists to deduce the moon's interior structure and composition and to gain knowledge into its thermal evolution--that is te history of the moon's heating and cooling, which opens the door to understanding its origin and development. ``Accurate knowledge of the moon's gravity will also be an invaluable navigational aid for future lunar spacecraft, according to Nasa.

             Finally, Grail will also help us to understand the broader evolutionary histories of the other rocky planets in the inner solar system--Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. 

              The most important aspect of the programme is the MoonKam project about which BMM had written before. This will allow school children in the US and in some other parts of the world to participate in the mission by requesting for photographs of any part of the moon of their choice which they can use for their school project work. A good idea which BMM feels that other space faring nations should also emulate--including students in a space mission which will inspire them to study science,technology, engineering and mathematics. This will mould them into future space leaders.  

              All in all a very important and historical mission. God Speed and Good Wishes.            



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