Upper Level Winds Fail to Gain Upper Hand as GRAIL Thunders to Orbit

Enshrouded in fire and smoke, a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket roars off of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 17B with the GRAIL spacecraft. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — High level upper winds tried again to delay the start of the Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission – but the United Launch Alliance Delta II heavy rocket would not be denied its date with history. GRAIL is on its way to provide the most detailed gravitational map ever of the Moon.

The mirror twin spacecraft will study the moon from its core all the way out to the lunar crust in a mission set to last 82 days. The first launch attempt, scheduled for 8:29 a.m. EDT was passed due to the same high level wind constraints that had conspired to scrub both launch attempts on Sept. 8. During the second opening at 9:08 a.m. however all the elements were in place and the final scheduled launch of a Delta II rocket roared off of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 17B.

Upper level winds were no match for the power of the Delta II – the final scheduled launch sent the GRAIL spacecraft on its way to provide a gravitational map of the Moon. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta II has a long and highly successful track record. This version of the rocket, commonly known as the Delta II Heavy as nine solid rocket motors, six that ignite at around launch time while the remaining “air-start” motors ignite after the first six burn themselves out. Each of these motors produces approximately 136,400 pounds of thrust.

The GRAIL mission is one of NASA’s Discovery Programs and cost an estimated $496.2 million. This includes the cost of spacecraft development, development of the spacecraft’s suite of instruments, launch services, mission operations science processing and support.

GRAIL launched to the Moon on a three-month mission to scan our nearest celestial neighbor – from the inside out. GRAIL launched atop a United Launch Alliance Delta II heavy rocket. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

“The gravitational map that GRAIL will allow us to deduce what the interior structure of the moon is like,” said GRAIL’s Deputy Project Scientist Sami Asmar. “The real beauty of the type of trajectory that the GRAIL spacecraft are on is that even if we slipped a couple days like we did – it doesn’t impact when the actual mission will take place – this provides us with a far greater flexibility in terms of conducting the mission objectives.”

Asmar had traveled to Kennedy space Center just a month prior for the launch of the Juno spacecraft to the planet Jupiter. He was a little unprepared for how much closer one was able to get to a Delta II launch as opposed to the Atlas that Juno launched on.

“It’s a little surreal, I did not expect that we would be so close,” Asmar said. “It’s such a beautiful to see it from, a real thrill!”


Video courtesy of AmericaSpace

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