Colonizing the moon just got a little bit easier. Now, were we to establish a society on the lunar body, we could consult a decent map on how to get our moonbuggies to the planetoidal McDonald's to pick up some Moonshakes and Moon McMuffins.
The old map, the 2005 Unified Lunar Control Network model, was comparatively blurry and imprecise. It was patched together from thousands of images taken by the Clementine spacecraft, launched in 1994, as well as data from other probes and observations made from earth. It was as good as could be hoped for at the time and would get an intrepid explorer from point A to point B, eventually. But NASA has a new toy to play with, the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter, and it is taking apart the moon's veil of secrecy layer by layer with amazing results. (Miss the recent full eclipse of the moon? Watch it here.)
Witness the differences in the 2005 map and this Rand-McNally-worthy slice of cartography produced by the laser altimeter. Blue and green areas represent low altitudes and red shows where the moon mountains are:
The LOLA instrument is mounted on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, a device that is preparing the way for Americans to revisit the moon. The craft is doing important work like scouting out safe and "compelling" landing sites and searching for water, as well as monitoring the effects of long-term exposure to the radiation that constantly fizzes through space.
Interestingly enough, on board is also a hardened container containing a microchip with the names of more than 1 million earth citizens - the results of a NASA contest to "Send Your Name to the Moon." You can read more about LRO's mission at its dedicated website.