The latest missions to the moon

The latest spacecraft designed to study the moon’s deep interior is set to fly on the first rocket launched since the last Apollo mission 44 years ago

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) has confirmed that it is planning a mission to the moon by late February, but the latest spacecraft designed to study the moon’s deep interior is not the first manned mission to the moon that has taken place since the last Apollo mission 44 years ago.

Because of problems with funding, the final of the Apollo 11 missions was in July 1969. The Apollo 10 mission that flew in November 1969 included an astronaut and two cosmonauts. It was an overland flight to the moon that culminated in the lunar module Columbia splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

With the US funding and focus on longer term international space projects, Nasa has been preoccupied with missions to investigate new ways to send astronauts to Mars. That focus has enabled other programs, such as the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL), to undergo testing and research ahead of a planned launch in early 2013.

GRAIL is a joint collaboration between Nasa and the European Space Agency (ESA). ESA and the US received the first version of the spacecraft to be launched in 2018 and a version of the spacecraft to be released from orbit in 2013.

After testing, both spacecraft will be released and performed dives in the Jovian polar region in 2013, during which they will chart the shape of the moon. The probe will then return to Earth to study the lunar gravity field and gravity sink. The information gathered could help scientists better understand the history of the moon’s formation.

Despite the interest in the Jovian pole, the data from the launches of GRAIL, Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) and Stardust-NExT, which together launched a comet sample return mission in 2002, has caused some concern that the US will lose the lead on space science and exploration.

Because of the success of that mission, scientists hoped that NASA could launch another mission in 2012, something the agency was in a rush to do in order to leave the lead to other teams.

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