CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- A pair of spacecraft rocketed toward the moon Saturday on the first mission dedicated to measuring lunar gravity and determining what's inside Earth's orbiting companion -- all the way down to the core.
"I could hardly be happier," said the lead scientist, Maria Zuber. After two days of delays and almost another, "I was trying to be as calm as I could be."
NASA launched the near identical probes -- named Grail-A and Grail-B -- aboard a relatively small Delta II rocket to save money. It will take close to four months for the spacecraft to reach the moon, a long, roundabout journey compared with the zippy three-day trip of the Apollo astronauts four decades ago.
Grail-A popped off the upper stage of the rocket exactly as planned 1 1/2 hours after liftoff, followed eight minutes later by Grail-B. Both releases were seen live on NASA TV thanks to an on-board rocket camera, and generated loud applause in Launch Control.The spacecraft are traveling independently to the moon, with A arriving on New Year's Eve and B on New Year's Day.
Once they were safely on their way, Zuber announced a contest for schoolchildren to replace the "working-class names" of Grail-A and Grail-B.
"Grail, simply put, is a journey to the center of the moon," said Ed Weiler, head of NASA's science mission directorate, borrowing from the title of the Jules Verne science fiction classic "Journey to the Center of the Earth."
NASA's Grail twins -- each the size of a washing machine -- won't land on the moon but will conduct their science survey from a polar lunar orbit.
Beginning in March, once the spacecraft are orbiting just 34 miles above the moon's surface, scientists will monitor the slight variations in distance between the two to map the moon's entire gravitational field. The measurements will continue through May.
At the same time, four cameras on each spacecraft will offer schoolchildren the opportunity to order up whatever pictures of the moon they want. The educational effort, called MoonKAM, is spearheaded by Sally Ride, America's first spacewoman. As of yesterdaySaturday, more than 1,100 schools had signed up.
The entire Grail mission costs $496 million.