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NASA releases videos on formation of moon

In an effort to better understand how the moon was formed, NASA has released a pair of videos using the latest data obtained from its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The first video, released late Wednesday, reveals the moon’s most prominent features, including leftover equipment from NASA’s Apollo missions. Imagery from the spacecraft shows these lunar highlights in high-resolution detail, revealing deep craters and towering mountains. The second video uses Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter photos to animate the history of the moon from its formation around 4.5 billion years ago through today.

Among the sites features in the video include Orientale Basin, Shackleton crater, South Pole-Aitken Basin, Tycho crater, Aristarchus Plateau, Mare Serenitatis, Compton-Belkovich volcano, Jackson crater and Tsiolkovsky crater, according to NASA.

The scientific community remains divided on exactly how the moon was formed. While current consensus involves a massive object the size of Mars smashing into Earth 4.5 billion years ago, scientists have identified a number of problems related to the theory. After the magma cooled, the moon’s crust formed. Then between 4.5 and 4.3 billion years ago, a giant object hit near the moon’s South Pole, forming the South Pole-Aitken Basin, one of the two largest proven impact basins in the solar system. The event marked the beginning of collisions that would cause large scale changes to the moon’s surface, such as the formation of large basins, say scientists.

NASA officials say the videos are part of an increased public education program. The team that produced the videos say they will assist in explaining why the moon exists and how it impacts Earth.

The videos come as NASA has launched a series of ambitious missions to the moon. Earlier this year, the U.S. space agency launched a pair of spacecraft in the first mission devoted to studying lunar gravity. Regional differences in the lunar gravity field cause the two spacecraft to speed up or slow down slightly, changing the distance between them as they fly. Bouncing microwave signals back and forth off each other, the pair of probes are gauging these tiny distance variations constantly. The resulting data could provide NASA with further insight into how the moon formed.

During the 84-day mission, scientists will obtain a high-resolution map of the lunar gravitational field to learn about the moon’s internal structure and composition in unprecedented detail. The data also will provide a better understanding of how Earth and other rocky planets in the solar system formed and evolved, the space agency notes.

Since the late 1950s, more than 100 missions launched by the United States, Soviet Union, Japan, China and India have targeted Earth’s companion. NASA flew six Apollo missions that landed twelve men on the lunar surface and brought back more than 800 pounds of rock and soil samples.

Meanwhile, the latest news from NASA’s LRO follows in the wake of data that shows recent geological data from the moon. The LRO has taken pictures of the moon’s crust that reveal that recent geological activity may have occurred, and the LRO’s pictures demonstrate that the moon’s crust is being pulled apart, which in turn is creating small valleys on the lunar surface. Scientists believe that any geological activity on the moon may have occurred less than 50 million years ago.

That said, future missions to the moon are far from guaranteed. In fact, the latest budget proposal released by the White House explicitly targets funding for future moon missions, which could hamper additional data from Earth’s nearest neighbor. Under the plan put forth by President Obama, the U.s. space agency will face a decision regarding whether to shelve the $81 billion Constellation programme, which called for a return to the moon by 2020 and human landings on Mars by the middle of the century. The plans were laid out by his predecessor, President George W. Bush, in 2004. The U.S. will instead call for $6 billion to be spent over five years to develop a commercial craft to transport astronauts into orbit, placing the burden of space travel in the hands of private companies.

Still, funding for future moon programs remains far from certain. Republican presidential candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has made the issue of returning to the mono a central component of his bid for the 2012 nomination. Speaking earlier this year, Mr. Gingrich pledged to return to the moon within eight years, adding that future plans should include an attempt to colonize the satellite — a proposal that was met with mockery.

Funding for future space programs has also captured the attention of members of Congress. A number of congressmen have voiced opposition to proposed spending cuts, citing a need to continue investing in key research and technology sectors. Speaking earlier this month, Congressman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and a member of the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Subcommittee, applauded the decision of Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican, to reject a fiscal 2012 reprogramming request that would have shifted funds away from NASA’s  Mars program. The request, which came from NASA, would have begun the process of shutting down its cooperative Mars-exploration effort with the ESA, which is primarily housed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL).

Both videos were created by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter team at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, to honor of the probe’s 1,000th day in orbit. LRO was launched June 18, 2009, from Cape Canaveral, Florida.