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Lunar Orbiter Camera on NASA Flight Survives Meteor Hit

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GREENBELT, Md., June 20, 2017 — NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has announced that the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) onboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) survived impact with a meteor in 2014.

The first wild back-and-forth line records the moment on October 13, 2014 when the left Narrow Angle Camera radiator was struck by a meteoroid.
The first wild back-and-forth line records the moment on October 13, 2014, when the left Narrow Angle Camera radiator was struck by a meteoroid. Courtesy of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University.

On October 13, 2014, the LROC, which normally produces beautifully clear images of the lunar surface, produced an image that was wild and jittery. From the sudden and jagged pattern apparent in the image, the LROC team determined that the camera must have been hit by a tiny meteoroid.

The LROC is a system of three cameras mounted on the LRO spacecraft. Two narrow angle cameras capture high-resolution, black-and-white images while a third wide angle camera captures moderate resolution images using filters to provide information about the properties and color of the lunar surface.

According to Mark Robinson, professor and principal investigator of LROC at Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration, the jittery appearance of the image captured is the result of a sudden and extreme cross-track oscillation of the camera. LROC researchers concluded that there must have been a brief violent movement of the left narrow angle camera. During that period, there were no spacecraft events like solar panel movements or antenna tracking that might have caused spacecraft jitter.

"Even if there had been, the resulting jitter would have affected both cameras identically," Robinson said. "The only logical explanation is that the NAC was hit by a meteoroid."

Using detailed computer model simulation, researchers estimate the impacting meteoroid would have been about 0.8 mm, assuming a velocity of about 4.3 miles/s and a density of an ordinary chondrite meteorite. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera was developed at Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego and Arizona State University in Tempe.

"The meteoroid was traveling much faster than a speeding bullet," Robinson said. "In this case, LROC was struck and survived to keep exploring the moon, thanks to Malin Space Science Systems' robust camera design."

Launched on June 18, 2008, LRO has collected a treasure trove of data with its seven powerful instruments, making an invaluable contribution to our knowledge about the moon.

"Since the impact presented no technical problems for the health and safety of the instrument, the team is only now announcing this event as a fascinating example of how engineering data can be used, in ways not previously anticipated, to understand what is happing to the spacecraft over 236,000 miles (380,000 kilometers) from the Earth," said John Keller, LRO project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

The LRO is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center as a project under NASA's Discovery Program. The Discovery Program is managed by NASA's Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

"A meteoroid impact on the LROC NAC reminds us that LRO is constantly exposed to the hazards of space," says Noah Petro, deputy project scientist from NASA Goddard. "And as we continue to explore the moon, it reminds us of the precious nature of the data being returned."
Jun 2017
Businesslunar orbiteropticsimagingNASAGoddard Space Flight CenterMalin Space Science SystemsLunar Reconnaissance Orbiter CameraArizona State UniversityAmericaseducation

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