[This text is based on an Associated Press story dated Dec 28, 1997.]
CAPE CANAVERAL -- Twenty-five years after men last walked on the moon, NASA is returning with a robot spacecraft.
The 4-foot Lunar Prospector will search for evidence of frozen water at the moon's poles and also will rummage for gases and minerals that, like polar ice, could be used by human settlers.
If all goes according to plan, the spacecraft will launch on January 5 to begin a one-year orbital mapping mission around the moon.
"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," said Alan Binder, chief scientist for Prospector and head of the Lunar Research Institute in Gilroy, California.
NASA has no current plans to send astronauts back to the moon. But if Prospector detects evidence of water ice at the moon's poles, confirming 1996 evidence from the Defense Department's Clementine spacecraft, lunar exploration almost certainly would be revitalized.
Prospector, which weighs only 653 pounds, will survey the lunar surface from a 60-mile-high polar orbit for a full year. Then, if there's enough fuel, the drumlike spacecraft could continue to collect data for an additional six months from an orbit as low as six miles.
One of Prospector's five science instruments will measure gamma rays emitted from the lunar surface to determine the amount of uranium, aluminum, iron, silicon, titanium and other elements. Among other things, the findings might help scientists answer the question of how the moon was originally formed.
Another instrument will try to detect carbon dioxide, nitrogen and other gases believed to be seeping from the moon's interior. Still another, a neutron spectrometer, will measure hydrogen, deposited in small amounts in the lunar soil by the solar wind.
The more hydrogen found, the more likely the presence of frozen water.
"It's very important to find out what the resource inventory on the moon is," said Michael J. Drake, director of the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. "If humans leave this planet to permanently inhabit a base on another planetary object, the most likely place we're going to go to first is the moon simply because it's easy to get to, [and] easy to get back from if something bad happens."
Original file name: CNI - Lunar Launch.final
This file was converted with TextToHTML - (c) Logic n.v.