NASA readies for a return to the moon

Lunar satellites set for June launch to study landing sites, resources for human mission

NASA announced that two satellites will be launched next month to gather information that will help it prepare for the return of humans to the moon.

NASA is preparing to return humans to the moon.

The space agency yesterday afternoon announced that two lunar satellites are on track to be launched next month. Both the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite will be focused on sending information back to Earth to help NASA scientists determine safe landing sites and resources for a human return to the moon.

"These two missions will provide exciting new information about the moon, our nearest neighbor," said Doug Cooke, associate administrator of NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. "Imaging will show dramatic landscapes and areas of interest down to one-meter resolution. The data also will provide information about potential new uses of the moon. These teams have done a tremendous job designing and building these two spacecraft."

The two NASA satellites are expected to give scientists more information about the moon than they've ever had before.

NASA is hoping not only to return astronauts to the moon but also to build a lunar outpost by 2020. The plan includes the use of next generation robots and machines to help prepare the spacecraft and the surface of the moon for such missions.

In February, a NASA-sponsored study revealed that robots the size of riding lawn mowers could be used to start building a lunar outpost before humans make their next trip to the moon. "We're just starting to scratch the surface of these concepts," Carl Walz, director of advanced capabilities at NASA, said in an earlier interview. "It'll be absolutely critical. What we're trying to do is figure out how best to incorporate human exploration and robots. I think the nature of exploration will be different [because of robots]."

The two new satellites discussed in Thursday's NASA press conference are scheduled to be launched together on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida on June 17.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has seven onboard instruments designed to create high-resolution, three-dimensional maps of the moon's surface, and to identify resources, like water and ice suspected to be in the moon's polar regions. The orbiter, which will orbit 50-kilometers above the moon, is also expected to study how the moon's radiation would affect humans.

The Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite is also designed to help scientists search for evidence of water on the moon, as well as study the mineral makeup of remote polar craters that sunlight never reaches.

Whether NASA goes ahead with a human mission to the moon largely depends on the agency's budget.

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama called for an independent review of NASA's human space flight activities. Looking at possible alternatives to programs already in the pipeline, the review is geared toward making sure the country's human space flight program remains "safe, innovative and affordable" after the space shuttle is retired, NASA says.

This story, "NASA readies for a return to the moon" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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