NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) assumed operational control and tasking of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) after it completed a one-year prime mission for NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) in early 2010. A program to competitively select and engage participating scientists was used to plan this phase of LRO operations.
LRO was the first mission in NASA's plan to return to the Moon and then to travel to Mars and beyond. LRO launched in late 2008 with the objectives to finding safe landing sites, locate potential resources, characterize the radiation environment, and demonstrate new technology.
The spacecraft was placed in low polar orbit (50 km) for a one-year mission under ESMD. LRO returned global data, such as day-night temperature maps, a global geodetic grid, high resolution color imaging and the Moon's UV albedo. There was particular emphasis on the polar regions of the Moon where continuous access to solar illumination may be possible and the prospect of water in the permanently shadowed regions at the poles may exist. Although the objectives of LRO are explorative in nature, the payload includes instruments with considerable heritage from previous planetary science missions, which enabled a smooth transition to a science phase. LRO is in its third extended mission for SMD.