Lunar and Planetary Institute

Build an LRO
EXPLORE! To the Moon and Beyond with NASA's LRO Mission

Build an LRO


Children ages 5 to 10 create their own models of lunar orbiters out of edible or nonedible materials in this 30–45-minute activity. They determine what tools would be necessary to help us better understand the Moon. Then they incorporate these elements into their models. NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is currently orbiting the Moon, is used as an example of a spacecraft armed with "eyes," "ears," and other tools for exploration.

What's the Point?

  • Scientists and engineers work together to design and build spacecraft such as NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).
  • Scientists use tools to make measurements, observe, and experiment — to explore. Many of those tools measure things that humans cannot see, smell, taste, feel, or hear. The LRO has different instruments onboard to collect information about our Moon. It has cameras for taking detailed photographs of the surface to help engineers select future sites for lunar outposts. Other instruments detect different wavelengths of light reflected from the surface to help identify and map resources. It carries a laser to map the elevations of the lunar surface in great detail. It also has sensors to gather information about lunar surface temperatures and radiation levels.
  • Science helps technology improve. LRO carries many new instruments and some that are improvements on previous designs.
  • There is always a balance between what scientists would like to test and what is possible. Many instruments were proposed by different teams of scientists and engineers, but not all could be selected because the spacecraft has a limited amount of space for the instruments to be mounted; it can carry only a certain weight, and there is a limited budget for developing the instruments.
  • Technology, like the LRO, is created to serve a purpose. The LRO's goal is to identify and map lunar resources — possibly including water ice.


For the group:

    • Several copies of LRO spacecraft images for the group to share, preferably in color
    • Butcher paper to cover tables
    • Materials for an edible model:
      • Toothpicks
      • Small containers of marshmallow creme
      • Spoons
      • Candy, cookies, and crackers of varying shapes and sizes, including pinwheel cookies or snack cakes for the module, and graham crackers or sugar wafers for the solar panels, gumdrops, red hots, candy corn, peppermints, after dinner mints, licorice sticks, tootsie rolls, graham crackers, sugar wafers, Pirouette cookies, pretzels, oyster crackers, marshmallows, Chex mix or cereal, etc. (use your imagination!)
  • Materials for a nonedible model:
    • Tape
    • Glue
    • Aluminum foil
    • Craft items, including pint-sized milk containers, coffee cans, soup cans (tape any sharp edges), or other objects for the spacecraft body, and straws, pencil top erasers, beads of various sizes, wooden spools, foil cupcake holders, screens, wooden miniatures, buttons, bottle caps, aluminum foil, different-sized Styrofoam blocks, Saran Wrap of all colors, old CDs, pipe cleaners, toothpicks, wire, wire cutters, Legos, tinsel, ribbon, fabric, gauze, etc. (use your imagination and best judgment for providing safe, fun materials!)

For each child:

For the facilitator:



1. Share that NASA wants to learn more about the Moon to prepare for future explorations. Because it's expensive to send humans, it's important to learn more about the Moon with robotic explorers. These robots aren't like those we see in movies, with eyes, hands, and legs, but rather spacecraft that have many instruments pointed at the Moon's surface to look for water ice and elements in rocks, map where the surface is safe for landing and building, and find where scientific questions about the Moon's formation and changes can best be studied. All these activities will prepare future astronauts — the children in your program! — to explore the Solar System!

2. Share with the children that they will be making their own lunar orbiters! Discuss what features they will need to design for their models.

  • What tools do you use to explore? Eyes, ears, noses, senses of touch and taste, cameras, thermometers, flashlights, magnifying glasses, etc. Encourage imaginative answers!
  • What kinds of tools can we design for our orbiters to explore with? Cameras, thermometers, telescopes, etc. Encourage imaginative answers!
  • In what ways are robots such as our spacecrafts different from human explorers? They don't need to eat, but they need power from solar panels or batteries. They are stronger — better able to withstand the radiation, cold and heat, and vacuum of space. They can't think for themselves and they are not creative, so we have to tell them what to do with antennas and program their computers.

Orbiters operate from high above the Moon's surface, so they won't be able to mimic the senses of touch or taste, and with no air for sounds to pass through, there is no need for "ears." They are, however, able to "see" with different kinds of "eyes" that detect types of light that are not visible to human eyes. Spacecrafts use the light of the Sun and stars, which reflects off the Moon's surface, in addition to their own lasers and radar to "see."

3. Share with the children the artist's drawings of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft that is currently exploring the Moon from orbit.

  • What different parts do you see? A body that holds the instruments (engineers call this a platform). Solar panels for collecting energy from the Sun (the energy is stored in a battery). Communications equipment to send information back to eager scientists on Earth. A propulsion system to help the spacecraft move a bit in its orbit. Shiny film to shield the spacecraft.
  • Are the instruments spread out or crowded into a few places? The instruments must have a clear "view" of the lunar surface. The same side of the orbiter faces the Moon, so the instruments are on one part of the orbiter body — making it pretty crowded! Scientists and engineers had to design instruments to be very compact and as light as possible; the amount of weight a rocket can lift into space is limited.
  • What kinds of information will the LRO collect for scientists?Its cameras, a laser, and radar are helping the LRO make maps.They are also looking for certain types of rocks that can be used by human explorers to make oxygen to breathe and fuels, and they hunt for clues of water ice. Its own special "nose," called a neutron detector, is "sniffing" out hydrogen and may help scientists find water, which is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. LRO has its own night-vision goggles! They help the spacecraft "see" ultraviolet light reflecting off the surface from starlight. Other instruments "see" different types of light coming from the Sun — some of which may harm humans. One instruments is measuring how much of these types are shining onto the Moon's surface. A special type of thermometer will find cold spots on the Moon that may hold water ice — like a lunar freezer! — and measure the daytime and nighttime temperatures.

Future explorers will need maps of the Moon to help find smooth places to land and build habitats and to find resources like types of rocks and water ice. LRO's instruments will show scientists features as small as a foot-and-a-half across.

4. Invite the "engineers" to build their lunar orbiters! Provide edible or nonedible materials and prompt them to keep in mind important elements to include in their designs.

  • What will you use to power your spacecraft?
  • How will your spacecraft move around?
  • What tools will your spacecraft use to explore the Moon?
  • How will it report back to scientists on Earth?

5. Invite the children to share their spacecraft designs and how they will help humans return to the Moon.

  • What tools does your spacecraft have and what will they tell scientists?
  • How will the spacecraft communicate with Earth?
  • What powers your spacecraft?
  • What helps it move around?
  • How old will the children be for the first planned base on the Moon? Do any of the children want to be part of the next team of lunar explorers? What do they want to do?


Explain that many NASA engineers and scientists worked together to plan, build, and launch the LRO. They, too, had to decide what tools to give the spacecraft. Many instruments were proposed by different teams of scientists and engineers, but not all could be selected because the spacecraft has a limited amount of space for the instruments to be mounted; it can carry only a certain weight, and there is a limited budget for developing the instruments. There is always a balance between what scientists would like to test and what is possible. The specific instruments were selected to help scientists and engineers meet the objectives of the mission — to characterize the lunar surface and environment to prepare for future human missions. Some are new and others build on successful technology used on other spacecraft. They provide scientists and engineers with information that is not available or with more detailed information than what has been collected in earlier missions.

Invite the children to eat their edible spacecrafts — or to take the nonedible spacecrafts home!

Last updated
June 28, 2010

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