Eleven years into its mission, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is beginning to show its age, but a recent software update promises to offer the spacecraft a replacement lease on life. As NASA’s eye within the sky over the Moon, the LRO has been liable for a number of the simplest Lunar observations since the times of Apollo. The new upgrade will help in allowing to continue the legacy.
Launched in June 2009, the LRO quickly succeeded in mapping over 98% of the Moon’s surface at a resolution of 100 meters per pixel. The orbiter is additionally famous for taking incredible high-resolution images of the Apollo landing sites, during which landers, rovers, tire tracks, and astronaut footprints are clearly visible.
In 2016, the LRO found evidence that the Moon is geologically active as a results of tidal forces from the world, and also because the Moon is shrinking as its core cools. More recently, the LRO was ready to observe The impact sites of both the Indian Space Research Organization’s Vikram lander, and SpaceIL’s Beresheet lander both impressive and record-breaking missions, despite their ‘explosive’ endings were recently observed by the LRO.
The LRO’s monumental record of accomplishment has not made it resistant to trouble, however. Its woes began in 2018, when the LRO’s aging Miniature Inertial Measurement Unit (MIMU), an instrument wont to measure the spacecraft’s rotation, had to be pack up. Without the MIMU, the LRO has got to rely solely on star trackers to orient itself. Star tracking may be a perfectly feasible alternative to the MIMU, using stellar positions sort of a map to inform the spacecraft which direction it’s facing.
Without new software, however, the star tracking method prevented the LRO from making quick, complicated maneuvers required to require side-angle images of the Moon. These side-angle shots are important for 2 reasons. the primary is that they allowed for photometry, or the power to review how surface brightness changes from different perspectives. Second, they supply the power to provide spectacular 3D images, giving the Moon’s geographical features a way of depth and realism, which is usually missing from the map-like images created by taking straight-down shots.
LRO will quickly recover its ability by readjusting itself for side-angle shots, the LRO team had to write down a replacement algorithm, which they called ‘FastMan,’ short for ‘Fast Maneuvering’. it had been brought online for the primary time in 2020 and has proven to be an excellent success thus far.
One of the challenges FastMan had to beat was that if the star trackers were accidentally pointed at a bright object just like the Sun, Moon, or Earth, they might lose their ability to orient the spacecraft. FastMan ensures that this doesn’t occur.
Initially, FastMan required input from the bottom so as to figure in tandem with the flight software, but it’s now been integrated in order that FastMan can perform side-view maneuvers autonomously.
With the upgrade installed, the LRO is about to continue doing science well into subsequent decade. Noah Petro, Project Scientist for LRO at NASA Goddard, said that considering LRO’s lifespan going forward, fuel could also be our rate-limiting factor, current estimates place us at having a minimum of five more years of fuel onboard, if less.
Although the LRO has surpassed its initial mission goals, the spacecraft’s continued well-being will still be an asset within the coming years, not least because it’ll be ready to support the Artemis program, which is ramping up to realize subsequent human Lunar landing sometime this decade. Long Live the LRO!