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NASA readies for moon mission

Lunar Prospector
Lunar Prospector   

Lunar Prospector to be launched in January

December 5, 1997
Web posted at: 12:00 a.m. EST (0500 GMT)

From Correspondent Ann Kellan

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (CNN) -- For the first time in 25 years, NASA is heading to the moon.

On January 5, Lunar Prospector will be launched from Cape Canaveral. The 660-pound craft, less than five feet tall and controlled from the Earth, will spend a year in a low-orbit around the moon, mapping the surface and prospecting for minerals.

"If, as I do believe, we will have man back on the moon in the not too distant future and build a base, we have to learn to live off the land," says Alan Binder of the Lunar Research Institute. "So the data the Lunar Prospector will provide ... will tell us where we can get the resources necessary to proceed ..."

"I think a lot of people have the idea that perhaps we know all there is to know about the moon," says Michael Drake of the University of Arizona. "But the reality is we've only just scratched the surface."

The Lunar Prospector won't land on the surface. Instead, it will travel from pole to pole, orbiting 63 miles above the moon's surface. Each orbit will take about two hours.

A L S O :

Diagram of Lunar Prospector

Five instruments, attached to 8-foot arms on the spacecraft, will be looking for signs of iron, aluminum, uranium and calcium.

An instrument called a neutron spectrometer will be looking specifically for hydrogen. Previous missions have spotted evidence of hydrogen in the polar regions of the moon, suggesting traces of water.

neurneutron spectrometer
The neutron spectrometer   
Lunar Prospector animation.
video icon 791K/21 sec./240x180
QuickTime movie

Instruments will also look for signs of gases spewing from the interior of the moon and will measure its magnetic field.

Scientists involved in the mission say they will be looking for any similarities between the Earth and the moon. They hope to either prove or disprove the theory that a giant asteroid slammed into Earth billions of years ago, shooting debris into space that clumped together to form the moon.

"By mapping the surface of the moon, we will understand something about the bulk composition of the moon, and that will allow us to compare it to the bulk composition of the Earth," Drake said.

NASA boasts that this mission will cost just $63 million. That's cheap in comparison to its first lunar mission 30 years ago, which cost $260 million.


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