NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), about the size of a Mini Cooper, began what was the first unmanned trip to the moon for the first time since 1998, on June 18th.
The spacecraft carries seven instruments to map the moon in unparalleled detail, seek out water and ice hidden in the permanent shadows of craters at the lunar south pole, and measure the temperature and radiation hazards future astronauts may face.
NASA expects this dramatic quest to determine if frozen water is buried under one of the millions of permanently shadowed craters, as this would be a tremendous resource for pioneering astronauts.
The LRO is now circling the moon in an orbit that brings the 2-ton probe within 124 miles of the moons surface at its closest and reaches out to about 1,863 miles. Over the next few days, more thruster firings will fine-tune the craft's flight path until it reaches NASA's planned observation orbit.
Two of LRO's instruments, a pair of radiation sensors, scanned the environment between the Earth and the moon. The remaining five instruments are scheduled to be activated in the next few weeks. It is suggested that the first new images of the moon since the late 90's should relayed back to NASA within the next few weeks.
The second unmanned spacecraft, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), also launched with LRO. This craft was expected to pass the moon today around 8:20 a.m. EDT. The spacecraft and an attached empty Centaur rocket stage will fly by the moon and shift into a polar orbit, ultimately ending in a crash into a shadowed crater at the moon's south pole to probe for hidden water ice around Oct. 9th.
Mission managers have said that NASA plans to release live video from the LCROSS as it passes the moon.