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The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is calling it the biggest lunar mission since NASA's Apollo programme. The JPY 32 billion (US$279 million) satellite, called the Selenological and Engineering Explorer (SELENE), will survey the Moon's mineralogy, topology and gravity gradients.
The main orbiter, which will enter a circular orbit 100 kilometres from the Moon's surface for a one-year mission, has 15 devices aboard. They include an X-ray spectrometer and a gamma-ray spectrometer for mapping the Moon's surface in unrivalled detail, and a terrain camera, laser altimeter and radar sounder that will provide surface and subsurface data for studying the Moon's tectonic history.
Researchers hope that SELENE's data will resolve, once and for all, a basic question: where did the Moon come from? There have been several theories, with consensus now largely on the 'giant impact' theory. This states that another planetary body smacked into Earth some 4.5 billion years ago, and the lighter debris blown out by the collision collected to form the Moon.