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Orbiters’ mission to moon set for 2d try

By Marcia Dunn
Associated Press / September 9, 2011

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - High wind forced NASA yesterday to delay the launch of twin spacecraft destined for the moon, the first mission dedicated to measuring lunar gravity.

NASA will try again today, despite another poor weather forecast: 60 percent no-go. Launch time is 8:33 a.m. The space agency has just two single-second launch windows every day.

Yesterday’s countdown made it all the way down to the four-minute mark, but was halted because of gusty wind high up in the flight path.

The mission is the first in more than 50 years of lunar exploration that is dedicated to measuring the moon’s uneven gravity - about one-sixth Earth’s pull. None of the world’s previous 100-plus moonshots - dating to 1959, including the six Apollo landings from 1969 through 1972 - focused on investigating what lies beneath the lunar surface.

The twin spacecraft named Grail-A and Grail-B will orbit the moon and chase one another. By measuring the varying gap between the two satellites, scientists will be able to create a precise map of the moon’s gravitational field. That will shed light on the composition of the moon’s interior, as well as the moon’s evolution during the past 4 billion years.

Each of the washing machine-sized spacecraft also holds four cameras that are part of an educational program led by Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. Middle school students around the world can choose lunar targets for picture-taking.

The Grail mission - short for Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory - costs $496 million.

NASA anticipated more than 6,000 guests for yesterday’s launch attempt, a big turnout for a school day. Grail is only the second mission from Cape Canaveral since the space shuttles retired in July. The Jupiter-bound Juno spacecraft was launched in August and drew an estimated 12,000 guests to Kennedy Space Center.

Unmanned rockets are the only missions for Cape Canaveral until private companies launch their own vehicles with astronauts. That is not expected to occur for at least three to five years.

In the interim, NASA is relying on Russia to launch American astronauts to the International Space Station. Russian Soyuz rockets are grounded, however, in the wake of a launch accident two weeks ago involving an unmanned supply ship.

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