PHOENIX - In a former administration building on the campus of Arizona State University, the moon is under constant surveillance. On a number of flat screen monitors attached to the wall, high resolution photos of grey dust draw the eye. Mountains exposed to an onslaught of solar radiation glow brilliantly, and deep craters appear impenetrable to light.
This is a playground for scientists who study Earth’s natural satellite, the lonely chunk of rock that controls the tides and some speculate, the rhythms of our body. The technicians sitting at their workstations spend their time monitoring data streaming back at the speed of light from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
The spacecraft orbits the moon with an array of instruments that constantly scan and map the lunar surface. Like a drone flying above the mountains of Afghanistan, this flying metal box has been drawing circles around the moon since 2009, peering down from its lofty perch and transmitting more data to scientists than all previous NASA missions combined.
The two cameras onboard the probe make up the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, and the system is controlled from the operations center in the Interdisciplinary A building on ASU’s Tempe campus. Each day, 600 to 1,000 high resolution photos are delivered to scientists who eagerly await them.
Originally designed to find ideal landing sites for future Orion missions to the moon, the LROC team now uses the satellite to study the geography of the moon after Project Orion fell victim to a shrinking NASA budget and changing priorities in space.
That’s fine and well with the team members who operate the LROC. They’re busy finding interesting targets on the lunar surface.
“We found a missing Russian rover,” said Ernest Bowman-Cisneros, a manager who oversees the mission. “The Russians had landed two rovers on the moon. One functioned normally while the other drove off on its own,” he continued.
The find isn’t insignificant. Each rover is equipped with a retro reflector, which scientists use in a sort of orbital target practice.
“We bounce laser beams off of them and that allows us to record an accurate distance between Earth and the Moon,” said Cisneros.
With the missing rover recovered, a second reflector is now available for measurements. The team has also discovered lava tubes that have been exposed to the surface by meteorite impacts.
“They’re much like the lava tubes you would see in Hawaii,” explained Cisneros. Those clues point to a geologically active chapter in the Moon’s history that could help scientists understand Earth’s history.
You can see the operations center for yourself if you pay the staff a visit during the week. Visitors are welcome to walk in and observe the team through a glass wall, while reading informative wall displays and even looking at an actual moon rock retrieved by the astronauts of Apollo 15.
If you email or call ahead, you can schedule a guided tour and take your family or small group to the other side of the glass wall, where you can chat with the staff operating the orbiting camera system.
Also in Tempe, but only for the weekend of March 9 and 10, the Arizona Aloha Festival will transform Tempe Beach Park into a Hawaiian-like paradise.
Hula dancers, food, music and crafts will highlight Hawaiian and Polynesian culture. The festival is free, but you could end up getting “paid” to go.
Festival organizers are raffling off three big prizes that include two trips to Hawaii and a “staycation” at the W Hotel in Scottsdale.
The fun begins at 10am on Saturday and Sunday at Tempe Beach Park.