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Up and away: NASA's lunar spacecraft are on their way

NASA, Atlas,launch,moon,LRO,LCROSSAfter failing to get the shuttle Endeavour off the launch pad this week, NASA had better luck with its mission to map the moon.

An Atlas V rocket lifted off from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS). The spacecraft are expected to reach lunar orbit Tuesday morning, and NASA has been tweeting about mission as it unfolds.

Within hours of blastoff, NASA established communication with the LRO to power up the systems needed to control the spacecraft, which will circle the moon at an orbit of 31 miles (50 kilometers) for at least one year to study the lunar surface and scope out potential landing sites for a possible manned moon mission in 2020.

The space agency then powered up the LCROSS, which is scheduled to smash into the lunar surface on October 9. The impact of this kamikaze mission is expected to create a six-mile (9.7-kilometer) -high explosion near the lunar South Pole that scientists hope will confirm whether water is frozen in the perpetual darkness of craters near that area. The LCROSS is expected to hit the moon's surface traveling at 5,600 miles (9,012 kilometers) per hour, creating a crater 66 feet (20 meters) wide and 13 feet (four meters) deep, CNET reports.

The successful launch was a relief for NASA, which earlier this week had to scrub the shuttle Endeavour's planned 16-day mission to the International Space Station due to hydrogen leaks in the system connecting the shuttle to its fuel tank. The earliest possible launch date for that mission is now July 11.

Image of NASA's LRO and LCROSS spacecraft on top of the Atlas V rocket © United Launch Alliance/Pat Corkery

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