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NASA Seeks Better Moon Maps Via Unmanned Mission

The full moon rises above trees in Ohio in April 2009. AP Photo/Amy Sancetta hide caption

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AP Photo/Amy Sancetta

Here's a surprising fact: scientists have better maps of Mars than they do of the Moon.

As NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce explains in her report on today's All Things Considered, that's one reason NASA plans to launch two unmanned lunar missions tomorrow.

An excerpt:

NELL: Almost forty years ago, Craig Tooley watched two men touch the moon for the first time.

TOOLEY: I clearly remember, you know, the Apollo 11 landing. I was a young child but I was old enough to watch it on television and remember it.

NELL: Now, Tooley is working to find safe landing sites for the next generation of lunar explorers. He's in charge of a spacecraft called the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. It will circle the moon about 31 miles above its surface, and gaze down with seven science instruments to create a detailed map of the landscape.

NASA already knows a fair bit about the area around the moon's equator, where the Apollo astronauts landed. But Tooley says the rest of the moon is more mysterious.

TOOLEY: We, at the moment, have much better maps globally of the planet mars than we do of the Moon.

NELL: Tooley says, on NASA's current maps, the location of some craters and mountains could be off by miles. And the maps don't have detailed information about smaller landscape features which would make it difficult to pick a safe spot for a future moon landing.