NASA has released a stunningly detailed 4K virtual tour of a selection of the Moon's most fascinating and historically important features. Earth's satellite remains the only alien world ever to be visited by a crewed mission, and is likely to be revisited in the coming decades, as space agencies across the globe look to extend the boundaries of human exploration.
The new video was constructed from nine years' worth of data harvested by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which has been studying Earth's moon since its arrival there in June 2009. The LRO has revealed the Moon to be a surprisingly complex, dynamic world, and helped scientists gain a clearer picture of how our solar system evolved into the stunningly diverse cosmic environment we see today.
The tour takes the viewer from fascinating geological features, such as the 2,500-km (1,600-mile)-wide South Pole-Aitken Basin, to the historic landing site of the Apollo 17 mission in the Taurus-Littrow Valley.
Earth's moon is of tremendous scientific and cultural importance to the human race. Its face has been seen by almost every person to inhabit our blue planet, but until very recently, at least in terms of human history, it has been beyond our grasp.
Over the course of the Apollo era, which ran through the 1960s and early 70s, 12 astronauts set foot on the Moon. Sadly, following the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, Earth's satellite was abandoned to the remit of robotic exploration. Thankfully, ambitious plans are in the works to return man to lunar space, and eventually, back to the surface.
Observations made by probes like the LRO will be pivotal in selecting the locations of future Moon exploration missions. Shackleton crater, for example, could be an ideal site for a lunar colony due to the relative ease of access to water ice, which was discovered lurking in the perennial shade at the bottom of the ominous crater by the LRO. Frozen water could be used for any number of purposes, the most ambitious of which involves using the resource as a component in rocket fuel production.
Returning to the Moon is an integral step in NASA's overarching goal to send a crewed mission to Mars. Earth's closest celestial partner is set to be used as a proving ground for the technologies needed to keep astronauts alive during a long-haul return trip to the Red Planet. Other nations, including China and Russia, are also seeking to plant their flags, both metaphorically, and physically, on the Moon and Mars.
One of the key technologies that could make an eventual lunar base a reality is additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3D printing. Space agencies are exploring the possibility of deploying robot workers to print protective habitats using lunar soil, otherwise known as regolith, as one of the main ingredients. If feasible, constructing protective domes in situ would be enormously preferable in terms of cost and logistics when compared to the option of lifting a ready-made base up through Earth's atmosphere, transporting it to the Moon, and setting it down on the lunar surface.
Before any ambitious crewed missions can come to fruition, a new generation of robotic explorers will trundle across the lunar surface, collecting samples, and further exploring our planet's enigmatic partner, in order to make ready for the arrival of their fleshy overlords.
Scroll down to watch the virtual tour of Earth's moon for yourself.
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