Earth's moon, our closest celestial relative and perennial object of awe, was barely explored when astronauts set foot on its terrain nearly a half century ago -- so scientists are preparing for a return trip.
And it's not just the moon targeted for manned and unmanned exploration but near-Earth asteroids and two distant planetary satellites -- Phobos and Deimos -- twin moons of the red planet, Mars.
Timothy Glotch, associate professor of geosciences at Stony Brook University, is leading a team of local investigators as part of a vast and far-flung group of scientists laying the groundwork for an ambitious itinerary.
Glotch sees the project as an opportunity to expand upon knowledge from the past. "We sent astronauts to the moon in the late '60s and early '70s. But the amount of terrain they explored was about the size of a football field," he said, adding that later missions covered more territory but still left most of the planet unexplored.
The overall project is known as the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute -- SSERVI -- designed to address a range of questions about the deeper mysteries of the universe.
Glotch and colleagues are working on an aspect called the Remote, In Situ and Synchrotron Studies for Science and Exploration. They will be combing through data beamed back from intrepid spacecraft to aid a new generation of astronauts.
"SSERVI is a NASA institute," Glotch said Wednesday. "It's a big program where they recently selected nine teams of scientists to collaborate and work to better understand the moon, asteroids and the moons of Mars."
In this region there are 43 scientists, many of them at Stony Brook, but also at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton and the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, Glotch said of his group, one of the nine national teams.
It's impossible to say when a craft would launch, Glotch added, because NASA currently lacks a vehicle with enough muscle to make the trip. Whenever that happens, scientists hope to have a mother lode of data ready to ease the burden of the celestial expedition.
"These results will be vital to NASA successfully conducting the ambitious activities of exploring the solar system with robots and humans," Jim Green, director of planetary sciences at NASA's Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement.
Glotch plans to prepare astronauts-in-training by taking them to earthbound sites, such as lava flows in Hawaii, which bear an uncanny similarity to the moon's landscape.
He and his team are especially keen on strengthening their understanding about the mystifying moons of Mars.
Phobos and Deimos, whose ancient Greek names in translation mean "fear" and "terror," are celestial anomalies. "They are actually [gravitationally] captured asteroids and are kind of potato-shaped," Glotch said Wednesday. "They are not spherical like our moon."