NASA's upcoming robotic mission to the Moon will set some basic signposts for human exploration there far into the future, while giving Earthbound scientists a much better view of the distant past.
Developed by the U.S. space agency's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate as a source of detailed maps for the Moon base already in development, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) will join orbiters from China, India and Japan in producing the best look ever at Earth's natural satellite.
Exploration planners at NASA headquarters here and at the Constellation program office in Houston will use data from the 12-month mapping mission to begin picking a site for the human outpost that is the current U.S. human-exploration goal by 2020.
Scientists looking at the same data, which will offer unprecedented detail of terrain, slopes and solar illumination across the entire surface of the Moon, will begin gaining new answers to questions about its origins in a shattering collision between Earth and a Mars-size body, and the subsequent history of the inner Solar System.
Among the first questions to be answered will be how much the lunar surface has changed since the 1960s, when the Apollo program mapped the areas where the first astronauts landed.
"We want to image some of the area mapped by the Apollo program with our high-resolution camera in order to see how many impacts have occurred there in the past 30 years, and that will help us to improve the understanding of the meteor flux onto the Moon," says Richard Vondrak, LRO project scientist and deputy director of the Solar System Exploration Div. at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
That data and the reams to follow as LRO maps the full lunar surface with its seven instruments will join a growing body of new knowledge about the Moon that started with the European Space Agency's Smart-1 mission in 2004-06 and continues with data collected by Japan's Kaguya (Selene), China's Chang'e and India's Chandrayaan-1.
Part of what I find so damned kewl about all this is that there is such an international fleet of orbiters right now. There's a palatable sense of competition and cooperation going on here. I tend to favor competing over cooperating on projects primarily because it breeds better results. With some cooperation, it gets even better. However, abandoning competition often breeds outright failure or massive disappointment.