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Back to the Moon, With Robots

The NASA Ames Research Center will direct at least four unmanned missions to the moon with the aim of mapping the entire lunar surface, seeking water sources and scouting safe landing spots for future astronaut visits, officials from the space agency said.

NASA said Monday that the Mountain View facility could possibly handle five robotic missions ahead of the next planned human landings on the moon, which are scheduled to happen by 2018, officials said.

Two of the robotic spacecraft are already being built, and the first unmanned launch is scheduled for 2008.

A spacecraft called the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is being built at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., will orbit the moon for at least a year to map its surface, paying particular attention to the south pole, where in 1998 scientists discovered signs of water.

A second robot craft, currently under development at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., will then attempt a precision landing near the south pole to hunt for possible water sources and flat areas safe enough for human landings.

After the first two missions are completed, NASA has tentatively planned two more launches in 2014 and 2016, and has indicated another launch might occur around 2012.

Aside from planning for human landings, another goal of the robotic missions is to determine whether oxygen can be extracted from lunar rocks, which astronauts could use for breathing or as a source of rocket fuel for a later Mars-bound spacecraft, said astrophysicist Christopher C. McKay, the robotic program's chief scientist at the Ames center.