If an unmanned probe called Lunar Prospector can squeeze through a four-minute launch window that begins at 8:31 p.m. EST Monday, the low-cost, low-profile unmanned probe will orbit the Moon, examine the surface for evidence of frozen water and analyze minerals and gases.
Carrying the probe will be the new Athena 2 rocket, built by Lockheed Martin as part of NASA's low-cost, high-speed Discovery program to explore this solar system. The mission will cost just $63 million. But the results may well be historic. If the probe confirms the presence of water ice at the Moon's south pole, the next era of space exploration may be at hand: missions launched from a manned Moon outpost that could drill for its own water and thus be self-sustaining. That would indeed be a pretty big step for mankind.