The Spacecraft Tarot: Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

Tippy Ki Yay
7 min readJan 24, 2021
The original watercolor illustration is by me, Tippy Ki Yay. The background image is Hubble imagery and the credit belongs to NASA, ESA, and J. Olmsted (STScI).

The High Priestess is in tune with her intuition.

She peers into the dark mysteries of life, emboldened by her curiosity and her drive to explore. When she traverses the unknown, she taps into her “gut feelings” to guide her along the way. Her strong empathic abilities connect her to the way people are feeling, the way situations are developing, and the way events are unfolding around her.

The High Priestess’ familiarity with the patterns and cycles of nature make her a strong ally and a knowledgeable friend during times of uncertainty. It is not unusual for others to seek out the High Priestess for a few words of advice, or just for a shoulder to cry on.

The High Priestess reminds us to listen to our inner voice, because that is the one that is most unclouded by others’ influence.

Just as the High Priestess can unveil what is hidden from view, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) illuminates previously unseen parts of the Moon, reaping treasure troves of data and finding hidden resources. The spacecraft’s discoveries continue to light a pathway for us as we prepare to explore parts of the celestial body we have never explored before.

Astronaut James Irwin stands next to the Lunar Roving Vehicle during the Apollo 15 mission. Image Credit: NASA

Long before NASA’s Apollo program landed astronauts on the lunar surface, scientists suspected that the Moon may be home to water ice.

Ice is valuable as a lunar resource because it can be converted into breathable air, drinkable water, and rocket fuel for future human missions to Mars.

In May 1961, eight years before the first Moon landing, three NASA researchers published an article in the Journal of Geophysical Research called “On the Possible Presence of Ice on the Moon.” They theorized that although the Moon’s gravity might be too weak to keep any water molecules that arrive or form on the lunar surface from floating away, areas of extreme cold could potentially trap them in the soil.

The Moon is filled with pockets of bitter cold. Because of the Moon’s position in Earth’s orbit relative to the Sun, some of the Moon’s craters hide permanently in shadow, never getting an opportunity to be exposed to sunlight. These areas are some of the coldest places in our solar system.

However, cracking the code of water on the Moon would take many more decades and many more spacecraft, each one slowly chipping away at the truth.

A NASA instrument aboard India’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft reveals locations of water ice at the Moon’s south pole (left) and north pole (right). Image Credit: NASA

Signs started to point toward the validity of the “Ice on the Moon” theory when India’s space agency Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched its first mission to the Moon: Chandrayaan-1. Launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota, India, on October 22, 2008, the lunar orbiter carried aboard a NASA instrument called the Moon Mineralogy Mapper, or M3. The M3 measured the light that bounced off the lunar surface and analyzed it to reveal clues about the molecular composition of the soil.

Close to a year after Chandrayaan-1 launched, ISRO and NASA teams concluded with data from M3 — along with accompanying data from NASA’s Cassini and Epoxi spacecraft — the presence of water molecules dusting the surface of the Moon. As scientists suspected, these particles accumulated in the polar regions, away from the direct sunlight. Previous missions had hinted the possibility, such as when NASA’s Lunar Prospector detected hydrogen, one of the main elements that make up water, at both lunar poles in 1998. But Chandrayaan-1’s findings pushed the suspicion closer to a certainty.

This view of Giordano Bruno crater was captured by LRO. Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

ISRO and NASA teams also detected hydroxyl on the lunar surface — a molecule that consists of one hydrogen atom and one oxygen atom. However, water molecules and hydroxyl are difficult to distinguish from one another because they emit very similar kinds of light, which raised some questions the abundance of one versus the other.

During the time of this discovery, on September 15, 2009, LRO’s Exploration Mission officially began. The lunar orbiter, along with its companion the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), had launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 18, 2009 to orbit closer to the Moon than ever before — at a height of 31 miles from the lunar surface — and collect information for humanity’s eventual return to the Moon. Part of that mission included understanding the nature of the icy deposits.

The Exploration Mission, lasting exactly a year, produced a complete map of the lunar surface in never-before-seen detail. The processed data sets included topographic observations, day-night temperature maps, and even high-resolution images of permanently shadowed areas, illuminated only by starlight. The data prepares us for future human missions to the Moon, outlining possible landing sites and places to build sustainable architecture.

In essence, LRO grants us access to another world.

The plume created by the LCROSS projectile 20 seconds after impact. Image Credit: NASA

During LRO’s Exploration Mission, the spacecraft companion LCROSS used an interesting method to measure the amount of water in the lunar soil. Instead of ejecting the empty 40-foot-long fuel tank when LRO and LCROSS launched into space, which is standard, LCROSS held onto it throughout its journey to the Moon. On October 8, 2009, LCROSS released the spent fuel tank into the permanently shadowed Cabeus Crater, near the Moon’s south pole, effectively repurposing the tank into a projectile. When the projectile hit the lunar surface, it stirred up a cloud of debris, exposing material that may not otherwise have seen direct sunlight for millions of years. LCROSS seized the opportunity to fly through the plumes, capturing images and other types of data to break down what types of material were in the kicked-up dust.

The data confirmed: there is water on the Moon. Mixed in with the lunar soil was perhaps hundreds of millions of tons of frozen water. Combined with the discovery of hydrogen gas, ammonia, and methane, which are compounds that can be converted into rocket fuel, LCROSS forever changed the perception that the Moon was a dry, barren wasteland — it suddenly became a place filled with resources, that one day could propel future human missions to Mars or even further into deep space.

A global mosaic of the lunar “far side,” stitched together from thousands of images from the LRO Wide Angle Camera. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University.

After LRO’s Exploration Mission ended on September 15, 2010, the goals of the spacecraft switched solely to science objectives. Since then, LRO has only added more and more detail to our understanding of the Moon’s water resources. For example, over time more evidence has pointed toward the possibility of water molecules existing not just in the shadows — but spread across the entire lunar surface.

In October 2020, researchers aboard the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a Boeing aircraft modified to carry a telescope, detected water molecules in Clavius Crater, one of the largest lunar craters visible from Earth. The amount detected in this location was around 100–400 parts per million, making this area 100 times drier than the Sahara Desert. Although this may not seem like a lot, water is a precious resource in deep space. The discovery made aboard SOFIA further compelled scientists eager to build sustainable architecture on the Moon’s surface. In 2020, LRO also discovered water not just in very large craters, but also in permanently shadowed craters that were smaller than a kilometer across — increasing the amount of water expected to be on the Moon by 10 to 20 percent.

The Lunar South Pole as seen by LRO. Image Credit: NASA

NASA’s Apollo program brought a total of 12 astronauts to the lunar surface between 1969 and 1972. Today, NASA’s Artemis program is gearing up to send the first woman and the first person of color to the Moon — this time to the South Pole, a part of the Moon humans have yet to explore. Using the exquisitely detailed map of the surface that LRO has created as a guide, plans are currently underway to narrow down the site of the Artemis III mission, which will bring humans to the Moon for the first time in over fifty years.

Today, LRO continues to explore the Moon, having far exceeded its expected mission duration of just one year. Using its side-view camera, the spacecraft builds 3D images of the lunar surface that help scientists more closely understand its geological formations.

LRO reveals hidden truths, similar to how the High Priestess shines a light on the dark mysteries of life. Both use tools of discovery to guide the way — for LRO, it is the suite of seven instruments that bring the Moon into sharper focus. For the High Priestess, it is her strong intuition and powers of pattern recognition. As we traverse the unknown, we must take a page from the book of LRO and the High Priestess. We must take in everything around us. We must trust our instincts. We must use our new knowledge to inform our next decisions, and let that pattern build on itself.

Every day we learn something new. Allow those lessons unlock better tomorrows.

This mosaic is comprised of 1,231 images taken by the LRO Narrow-Angle Camera in the summer of 2018. Image Credit: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio

Read the complete Spacecraft Tarot series.