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Columbus Science in Orbit around the Moon

[And liftoff with LRO LCROSS]

NASA launched a new lunar orbiter last month to begin a yearlong mission. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will provide NASA with some of the most complete and accurate information about our moon.

Ron Li is from Ohio State University. He's one of the 24 scientists selected by NASA to design mapping tools on-board the orbiter. He explains how this mission is only a preface to NASA's larger, more ambitious, project.

"To establish long-term habitat for people to stay there in the longer term," says Li.

By mapping the entire lunar surface, NASA hopes to find a landing site for its future colony of humans. The orbiter will do this by circling the moon only a few miles above ground, and produce pictures of the surface about 30 times better than what's typically found on Google Earth. From the pictures, NASA might be able to see some of the equipment left behind by the mission of 1969.

[Armstrong: It's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.]

At the time, NASA succeeded in landing on the moon without the type of information it's collecting with the 500 million dollar orbiter. But, as Li explains, NASA didn't need back then because it landed in the equatorial region of the moon.

"The areas to be landed on will be different. It's not going to be equatorial area anymore. There interested in polar area. There's a possibility that water or ice exist that could provide energy on lunar surface," says Li.

NASA suspects the water is hidden in dark craters of the moon's polar regions - which means it might be difficult to detect from space. So the space agency came up with a plan to send a camera down onto lunar soil but without ever landing.

On day 100 of the mission, an empty rocket engine will be dropped from the orbiter. It'll act as a projectile - speeding toward the moon to blast a hole in its surface.

The impact will release a cloud of dust 6-mile high. It'll also signal the orbiter flying above to launch something else toward the moon - the LCROSS. This machine will dive into the cloud of dust, measure what might be in it, and send the information back to earth. But it'll have to do this quickly, because within four minutes, the 80-million dollar gadget will end up crashing itself on the lunar surface.

Ron Li acknowledges that enthusiasm for space exploration isn't what it used to be. But he hopes that this type of mission could generate excitement about science in the younger generation.

"Missions like this will generate a lot of enthusiasm so that more domestic students could go to science majors and engineering majors. And that is very much needed," says Li.