Gathering strength as she morphs into a major Category 4 storm, Hurricane Irene continues to threaten the East Coast. But even she can't slow preparations for upcoming NASA launches from Florida's Space Coast, including a moon-studying mission slated to start Sept. 8, the space agency said.

Forecasts anticipate Hurricane Irene to stay roughly 190 miles off the Florida coast, passing east of NASA's Kennedy Space Center at about 4 a.m. EDT Friday, according to NASA officials.

Despite the expected heavy rains and strong winds, the facility will stay open and NASA will continue to prep the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, or GRAIL, mission, that will send two spacecraft to study the moon's interior.

It's looking like we're going to be OK, and it will have no impact on the GRAIL mission, David Lehman, GRAIL project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., told reporters Thursday.

Actually, rather than hampering preparations for the GRAIL launch, Hurricane Irene has merely jettisoned things along.

We moved up our schedule a couple of days, said Lehman. We actually put the fairing on the launch vehicle a few days ahead of schedule, on Tuesday, in order to prepare for this.

The mission, which is believed to cost $496 million, will sketch out the moon's interior structure in never-before-seen detail that could possibly provide new insights into Earth's nearest neighbor.

Trying to understand how the moon formed, and how it evolved over its history, is one of the things we're trying to address with the grail mission, said Maria Zuber, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and GRAIL's principal investigator. Scientists also want to try to understand how the moon is an example of how terrestrial planets in general have formed.

The twin GRAIL spacecraft elements will follow each other around the moon at a low orbit, 34 miles above the lunar surface. According to Zuber, the spacecraft will be able to precisely pick up the resulting differences - less than the diameter of a human red blood cell - which scientists will then use to figure out the gravity field.

Researchers said that being privy to such detailed information would allow scientists to better understand the moon's structure.

 

I am predicting that we're going to find something - and I don't know what it is - that is really, really going to surprise us and turn our understanding of how the moon and other terrestrial planets formed on its ear, said Zuber.

Hurricane Irene is moving slowly on a path that's pushing the massive storm toward possible landfall on the North Carolina coast Saturday, before hitting the Northeast's I-95 corridor late Sunday. Forecasts show Irene could make a direct hit on the New York City region, including parts of New Jersey.

With hurricane force winds of at least 74 mph extending 70 miles from its center, and tropical-storm force winds extending another 255 miles in all directions, the storm is packing winds of 115 mph and forecasters said it could strengthen before hitting North Carolina's Outer Banks over the weekend.