Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

StarDate: April 22, 2009

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It's been almost four decades since the last astronauts walked on the Moon. And during that time, the United States has sent just two robotic spacecraft to study the Moon. But the pace is about to get a little more hectic. In fact, the launch window for the next lunar mission opens on Friday.

The mission is LRO -- Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. It's designed to map the entire lunar surface and snap some of the sharpest pictures to date. And it'll pay particular attention to the Moon's poles.

LRO is a pathfinder for future manned missions. Its pictures will pinpoint good landing sites, and it'll try out some new technologies that could be applied to future exploration.

But one of its main goals is to find resources for long-term lunar bases. Earlier craft found evidence of water ice inside craters at the south pole. Sunlight never reaches the bottom of the craters, so the ice could have been frozen there for billions of years. The ice could supply explorers with drinking water, oxygen, and rocket fuel -- drastically reducing the amount of supplies they'd have to bring from Earth.

LRO's instruments will try to confirm whether ice exists, pinpoint its location, and tell us how much ice is there. And it'll have help. A second craft will share its ride into space. This summer, it'll crash into the Moon to try to splash some of the ice into space for LRO to measure. More about that tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009

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