March 14, 2012 at 3:59 PM ET
NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has traced the moon's early history as well as the latest trash left behind by moonwalkers, and now the team behind the mission has created a video smashing 4.5 billion years of the moon's existence into less than three minutes.
"Evolution of the Moon," released to mark LRO's first thousand days in orbit, starts just after the moon's congealment into a ball of molten rock, and guides you through the giant blast that formed the South Pole-Aitken Basin, through the pummeling known as the Heavy Bombardment, right through the hail of debris that resulted in the cratered satellite we all know and love.
Only one big scene is missing from the show, in my opinion: the catastrophic impact between Earth and another planet, an event that scientists believe led to the moon's creation. Consider it the prequel to "Evolution of the Moon."
There's yet another scene that scientists are thinking about adding to the story: a collision involving the moon and a smaller moonlet, sometime after the moon's formation. Some researchers suspect that such a "Big Splat" could have been responsible for the marked difference in the terrain of the moon's near side and far side — although others think the Aitken Basin blast or gravitational forces could have done the job. NASA's GRAIL mission, which was launched last year, could shed more light on that chapter of the story.
There's also a "Tour of the Moon," about five minutes in length, that guides you through the highlights of the moon's topography with the help of LRO imagery. You'll get a quick overview on the mysteries of Orientale Basin and Aitken Basin, the artifacts left behind by the Apollo 17 mission, the far-side craters we can never see from Earth, and the future of lunar exploration. For space fans, it's must-see video.
More from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter:
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.