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Destination Moon!

"LRO will gather lunar data on a global scale-this includes temperature mapping, geodetic-grid mapping, high-res color and ultraviolet albedo imaging," Bleachor said. "Special emphasis will be on the Moon's polar regions where water ice may exist in the permanently shadowed regions of some craters."

A piggy backing mini-sat, called Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite or LCROSS, built by the NASA Ames Research Center, will focus on ice detection at the Moon's south pole.

As LRO orbits the Moon, LCROSS will do its own thing and eject two hefty surface impactors. The objects will then slam into the Moon and create a plume that LCROSS will "sniff". Hopefully, the sniffing will reveal water ice, hydrates, and hydrocarbons-yes, the Moon might possess a big "carbon footprint" in the form of natural gas, ethane and methane.

So why all this fuss about going back to the Moon? Isn't it just a dead slag heap in space? Why bother?

Well, NASA-and the new Obama White House-justifies a lunar return this way: "Our return to the Moon addresses fundamental questions about Earth's prehistory, the solar system and the universe and about our place in them. It will allow us to test technologies, systems, flight operations and exploration techniques to reduce the risk and increase the productivity of future missions to Mars and beyond. It will also expand Earth's economic sphere to conduct lunar activities with benefits to life on the home planet."

And if natural gas is discovered on the Moon, future drill crews could find lots of work to do up there. Just don't expect importing LNG-lunar natural gas-to Earth. But a deep supply of methane would be ideal for rocket propellant and fuel for a permanent Moon colony. Maybe future lunar colonists might like a juicy gas-grilled burger once in a while.

What's in the Sky: Enjoy a sky showcase with Mercury, Venus and Mars during the early morning hours this week. On June 20, at 5 a.m., just as dawn light breaks, look east to see the thin-crescent Moon join this planetary grouping.

Lou Varricchio, M.Sc., was a NASA senior science writer at the NASA Ames Research Center in California. He is currently involved with NASA-JPL Solar System Ambassador Program in and the U.S. Civil Air Patrol in Vermont.

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