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NASA has announced completion of thermal vacuum testing on its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which will map landing sites on the Moon for America's planned new wave of manned space exploration. Launching next year, the LRO will orbit the Moon just 30 miles up, allowing it to scan the surface with great precision.

The tests completed today subjected the fully-assembled spacecraft to the rigours it will face in space, including vacuum, extreme heat and terrible cold.

"We have cooked LRO, frozen it, shaken it, and blasted it with electromagnetic waves, and still it operates," said NASA engineer Dave Everett.

The tests were done in NASA's Thermal Vacuum Chamber at the Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland. The space survey machine will be shipped to Cape Canaveral early next year, ready for launch aboard an Atlas V rocket in April. The LRO will share its ride with another Moon mission, an impact probe called the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite.

Once at the Moon, the LRO will take up a polar orbit, so covering the whole lunar surface as time goes by. It will be able to orbit safely just 30 miles up, owing to the lack of any atmosphere.

NASA planners are particularly keen to have accurate maps of potential landing sites, so as to avoid any mishaps to the manned landers they intend to send to the Moon from 2020. Back in 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had to take manual control of their Apollo 11 module just 400 feet up, as it was taking them down into a crater strewn with massive boulders. When they set down safely beyond the crater, they had just 30 seconds of fuel left.

The space agency would like to avoid this sort of thing in future. However, they are also very keen to make "hairy landings on a crater rim" if at all possible.

The reason for this is solar power. NASA aims to establish long-term bases when it goes back to the Moon, and in space the usual source of power is solar panels. But most of the Moon is subject to nights lasting two weeks, making solar power a troublesome option.

But at the lunar poles, sunlight can be almost constant - especially on crater lips and mountaintops.

"Solar energy could be the main source of power because the sun is almost always above the horizon," according to Goddard boffin Richard Vondrak.

"There may even be areas on crater rims and mountains where the sun hasn't set for eons, called Permanently Illuminated Regions (PIRs)."

Thus the LRO will be giving the polar regions a particularly hard stare as it passes over. A base in a PIR might be able to largely do without nuclear power, which would otherwise be necessary for any longterm presence.

There's more from NASA on the LRO mission here. ®

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