NASA has selected Lockheed Martin's Atlas V rocket to launch the Lockheed-built Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LunarCross) in the third quarter of 2008 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The Atlas V vehicle has had eight successful launches. LRO and LunarCross will be launched aboard an Atlas V 401 variant on its ninth flight. The 401 configuration is a 4m (13.1ft) fairing atop a Centaur upper stage on a common core booster powered by the Russian-designed RD-180 engine.


The Centaur will separate from the Shepherding craft and crash land

LRO will arrive at the Moon three to five days after launch and from its 50km (31 miles) mapping orbit begin its one-year mission to image the surface in detail for future human exploration. The LunarCross has two main parts, the Shepherding Spacecraft (S-S/C) and the Atlas V's Centaur upper stage, which will remain coupled.

"Following delivery of LRO to its required lunar transfer orbit, the Centaur upper stage will perform a unique series of manoeuvres to place LunarCross into a separate trajectory that will result in a subsequent lunar impact," says Lockheed.

About three months after launch the Centaur will separate from the S-S/C and crash land near the lunar south pole. The impact will result in a 74km high, 1,000t plume of Moon regolith.

The S-S/C will be close enough to fly through the plume measuring its chemical composition. Minutes after that encounter the S-S/C will crash land, creating a second plume visible to lunar-orbiting spacecraft and Earth-based observatories.

Source: Flight International