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Moon with a view

— It'll be at least a decade before humans revisit the moon, but if you can't wait that long, you can revisit a virtual moon in 3-D and see sights that just don't come across in the 35-year-old imagery from the Apollo missions - including the stars shining in lunar skies. The fresh perspectives come courtesy of Lunar Explorer, a software package making its official debut Monday.

Lunar Explorer / Starry Night

Apollo 17's rover and lunar module are visible in
Lunar Explorer's view of the Taurus-Littrow valley. The
dial at lower left serves as a navigational interface. 

Lunar Explorer is a labor of love for Manny Pimenta, an electrical engineer, computer scientist and Space Frontier Foundation advocate who has been working for years to bring his idea to life: "What we're aiming for is to re-create the moon - with a simulation as accurate and realistic as we can make it," he told me.

He said the idea came to him around the year 2000 - when he realized that his childhood dream of visiting the moon by the turn of the millennium wasn't going to come true. He realized further that "I hadn't really done anything to try to bring about the future." Lunar Explorer is his attempt to rectify that situation.

"I'm basically betting my financial future on this," he said.

The programming was done by VirtuePlay, which has also worked with NASA on a lunar-racing simulation program for educational and mission planning purposes. Like the racing simulator, Lunar Explorer takes advantage of imagery from the Clementine mapping satellite as well as VirtuePlay/VirtueArts' RADE software architecture.

Clementine's stereographic views of the moon were enhanced and turned into a 3-D computer model that can reflect zoomable overhead perspectives as well as on-the-ground views. And it all works on your average home computer with a graphics card.

I watched a demonstration of the program at this summer's Space Frontier Foundation conference. One of the cooler features is that the simulation includes objects from past lunar missions, ranging from robotic Luna and Surveyor landers to Apollo's lunar modules and surface instrument packages.

You can go on virtual expeditions to lunar destinations never seen from the surface. You can also see the stars - which don't show up in imagery from the Apollo missions because of the way photographic exposures were made on the moon. (Some have cited the absence of stars as evidence that the moon missions were actually elaborate hoaxes, but those claims have been pretty thoroughly debunked.)

And that's not all: In future releases, Pimenta and his partners are planning to include the ability to create and manipulate objects or even whole settlements on a virtual moon - which could turn Lunar Explorer into something like "The Sims" in outer space.

Animations based on actual space missions also could be added, Pimenta said: "You could watch the spacecraft land right beside you," he said.

The program already can provide a 3-D, virtual-reality experience, provided you have the right kind of hardware. Right now, it works with military-grade head-mounted displays - but that kind of equipment costs tens of thousands of dollars, Pimenta said.

"We are ready to integrate the first consumer-level headset that comes along and provides adequate display capabilities," Pimenta wrote in an e-mail. "People will be able to enjoy a fully immersive lunar environment right in their own homes!"

The 3DVisor virtual-reality headset developed by eMagin just might fill the bill, Pimenta said.

Pimenta is also negotiating to have the industrial-strength, 3-D version of Lunar Explorer placed in museums and science centers - and after demonstrating the virtual moon at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he's starting to think about a virtual Mars, based on imagery from Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Lunar Explorer 1.0 is available for $39.95 through the venture's Web site, as well as through the Starry Night Store, the Space Frontier Foundation and other outlets.

For other virtual lunar explorations, you can give NASA's World Wind software a spin, pay a visit to Google Moon, or take a giant leap by looking up the Imax 3-D film "Magnificent Desolation."  And stay tuned for NASA's next real-life moon mission, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

While we're on the subject, I might as well remind you that I'll be covering the Lunar Lander Challenge and other X Prize Cup activities in New Mexico this week. I'll file my first reports from the scene on Tuesday.