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Grail moon mission's legacy lives on

NBC's Brian Williams reports on a video assembled from Grail lunar imagery.

Even though NASA's twin Grail probes are history, the mission is far from finished. MIT planetary scientist Maria Zuber, who serves as Grail's principal investigator, says the educational part of the mission will continue for more than a year.

Zuber's update comes in the wake of last week's release of a video combining almost 2,500 images captured by the MoonKam camera aboard one of the probes, called Ebb. (The other probe was named Flow.) Ebb and Flow mapped the moon's gravity field over the course of several months last year, and were brought down for a controlled crash in a spot on the lunar far side now known as the Sally K. Ride Impact Site.

The late Sally Ride, America's first woman in space, helped organize the MoonKam project through her educational program, Sally Ride Science. Students around the world got to select MoonKam's photographic targets over the course of the mission. Late Friday, I asked Zuber in an email whether MoonKam imagery was still being delivered to the schools. Here's the reply she sent today:

"We don't send the imagery to the schools; rather, we post it to an open website for the students and everyone else to use and enjoy. I believe the last of the imagery was posted yesterday.

"Although we are not collecting images (or gravity data) anymore because the Grail spacecraft have completed their mapping, the MoonKam program continues. We've had such positive feedback regarding the value of the images as an educational tool that we have extended Sally Ride Science funding until June 2014, so that they can develop classroom exercises so that students for years to come can analyze the images. We are scheduling a teacher's workshop this spring to get feedback from current participants on what kinds of activities have been most valuable, so that we can extend those — and of course, we are seeking new ideas as well.

"MoonKam was designed totally for education, and there were no scientific requirements, but students have been pretty clever in using them to study the geology of the moon. I fully expect that there will be scientific advances from study of the images. I note that while other recent missions to the moon, most notably the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, carry calibrated, higher-resolution cameras, the resolution of the MoonKam images is comparable to the global imaging of Mars from the Viking orbiters.* Pretty good for a student education experiment!

"*Viking flew in the mid- to late 1970s, and of course there are much higher-resolution images now. But for orbital imagery, Viking was state of the art at Mars until the mid-1990s."

I also asked Jennifer Blue at the U.S. Geological Survey about the status of the impact site's name. At one time, it was thought that the International Astronomical Union would have to give its blessing to the "Sally K. Ride Impact Site," but Blue set me straight in an email today:

"After the announcement about the naming of the Grail impact site for Sally Ride, the IAU Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (WGPSN) amended the Web page [on planetary naming conventions, as follows]:

"'During active missions, small surface features are often given informal names. These may include landing sites, spacecraft impact sites, and small topographic features, such as craters, hills and rocks. Such names will not be given official status by the IAU, except as provided for by Rule 2 above [relating to features having 'exceptional scientific interest']. As for the larger objects, official names for any such small features would have to conform to established IAU rules and categories.'"

"Hopefully this clarifies for the community that impact sites generally are not formally named."

Thanks so much to Maria Zuber and Jennifer Blue for clearing up these questions. 

More about the Grail mission:

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.