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NASA/Neil Armstrong/AP
Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. walks on the surface of the moon, July 30, 1969.

NASA Explores Possibility of Lunar Colonization

June 16, 2009 08:00 AM
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
Almost 40 years after Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon’s surface, NASA is set to launch a reconnaissance mission with the aim of establishing the first colony on the moon.

NASA Launches Reconnaissance Mission on the Moon

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NASA’s $579-million lunar mission, set to launch on Wednesday, is expected to increase the feasibility and likelihood of the dream of space colonization. The data collected by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) will allow scientists to find the best landing sites for a spacecraft bearing humans. 

The objective of this reconnaissance mission is to weigh the possibilities for extended human habitation on the moon. "We're going to provide NASA with what is needed to get human beings back to the moon and to stay there for an extended duration," Craig Tooley, project manager for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, told the Los Angeles Times.
According to NASA’s Web site, both orbiters will launch from a single Atlas V rocket. Their methods for studying the surface and environment of the moon, however, will be very different. The LRO will create updated topographical maps of the lunar surface and search for a possible site for spacecraft landings, shedding light on regions of the moon that have not been visible in the past. The LCROSS, on the other hand, will directly collide with the moon’s surface in search of frozen water sources. "This should be spectacular," Tony Colaprete, the satellite's project scientist, told the Los Angeles Times. "It should be a very visible impact from Earth."

The previous Apollo missions were only able to explore the moon’s equatorial regions, leaving the lunar poles mostly in the dark. As Tooley explained, “We have much better images of Mars than the moon.” Many scientists believe that the shaded areas in the moon’s poles house billion-year-old ice deposits that could be potentially used as a source of water, hydrogen and oxygen. The presence of these ice deposits is still hypothetical, and according to Tooley, constitutes “a hotly and passionately debated topic."

Reactions: Will a lunar outpost ever be built?

In 2004, President George W. Bush proposed the Vision for Space Exploration project with the goal of making the moon fit for human habitation by the year 2020. This potential moon colony would then serve as a starting point for the eventual exploration of Mars, the Los Angeles Times reports.

But the project doesn’t seem to be fully endorsed by the Obama administration, which recently ordered a review of all human spaceflight initiatives.

Scientists involved in space exploration believe that, in spite of these uncertainties, the time is right for the lunar orbiter mission to proceed. "Not only is this the right time to launch LRO, the LRO spacecraft should be the first in a small fleet of missions that expand our horizons and, simultaneously, provide opportunities to enhance our nation's technological capabilities," David Kring, a senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, told Scientific American. 

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Related Topic: NASA’s Kepler Mission Searches for Other ‘Earths’

In March, NASA’s Kepler satellite was launched in a search for evidence of extrasolar Earth-like planets capable of sustaining life. The spacecraft, part of the $600 million Kepler mission, will spend three and a half years searching the stars in the Cygnus-Lyra region of the Milky Way. A powerful telescope will measure the brightness of the area, searching for drops in brightness—known as transits—that indicate a planet has passed in front of a star.
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