Ebb, one of two washing-machine-sized NASA spacecrafts, has sent back a gallery of images of Earth from an orbit just 35 miles above the moon surface.
American middle school pupils at the Emily Dickinson Elementary School in Bozeman, Montana, directed the “MoonKam” to areas of the surface which caught their attention.
The school won a national competition to be first – but other schools around the world will take turns to “direct” the tiny photographer as it hurtles over the moon.
Ebb is one of a pair of NASA probes – Ebb and Flow – mapping the moon’s gravity using tiny variations in their flight path to measure what is “inside” the moon.
The images were taken aboard the Ebb spacecraft from March 15-17 and downlinked to Earth on March 20.
“MoonKAM is based on the premise that if your average picture is worth a thousand words, then a picture from lunar orbit may be worth a classroom full of engineering and science degrees,” said Maria Zuber, GRAIL mission principal investigator from MIT.
“Through MoonKAM, we have an opportunity to reach out to the next generation of scientists and engineers. It is great to see things off to such a positive start.”
The MoonKAM program is led by Sally Ride, America’s first woman in space, and her team at Sally Ride Science in collaboration with undergraduate students at the University of California in San Diego.
More than 2,700 schools spanning 52 countries are using the MoonKAM cameras.
“What might seem like just a cool activity for these kids may very well have a profound impact on their futures,” Sally Ride said.
“The students really are excited about MoonKAM, and that translates into an excitement about science and engineering.”
Launched in September 2011, Ebb and Flow probes will answer longstanding questions about the moon and give scientists a better understanding of how Earth and other rocky planets in the solar system formed.
Despite astronaut landings and robotic missions aimed at the moon, scientists still don’t know everything about Earth’s celestial companion. A lingering mystery is why the side that always faces Earth appears flatter than the mountainous far side.
Mapping the moon’s uneven gravity – about one-sixth Earth’s pull – should provide a clue.
The spacecraft will spend the next three months orbiting 35 miles above the lunar surface. Scientists will monitor the slight variations in distance between the two to map the moon’s gravitational field.
This in turn will give an idea of what lies below the surface whether it is mountain ranges, lava tubes or craters.