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September 19, 2011

You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but you can teach new tricks to an old spacecraft — or even two of them. In fact, engineers have done just that. They recently gave a new assignment to a pair of spacecraft that had been operating in Earth orbit: study the Moon — from lunar orbit.

The craft were two of five that made up a mission that has studied Earth’s magnetic field and its interaction with the solar wind — the flow of charged particles from the Sun.

Two years ago, engineers began nudging them out of Earth orbit and toward the Moon. The probes first went to points in space where the gravity of Moon, Earth, and Sun are in balance. After a few months at these points, the craft made the final push to the Moon, and they entered lunar orbit this summer. Although it was a lengthy process, it took far less fuel than a more direct approach to the Moon.

The twin probes are studying the Moon’s magnetic field, its core, and its surface. They’re also studying the interaction between the solar wind and the lunar surface, and the “shadow” the Moon casts in the solar wind. It’s a mission that’s expected to continue for years.

And with the new tricks came a new name — a long and tortured name that was chosen because it produced a good acronym — ARTEMIS. In Greek mythology, Artemis was a goddess whose symbols included the Moon and hunting dogs — a pretty good name for two spacecraft that were sent to fetch the Moon.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011


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