Moon mystery: NASA probe launch aims to solve 40-year-old lunar enigma

(CBS News) NASA is headed back to the moon Friday. The space agency will launch a small, unmanned craft, aboard a rocket bound for the lunar surface. The goal of the craft is to solve a mystery more than 40 years old.

The mystery centers on a mysterious glow on the moon astronauts noticed just before dawn.

NASA to launch new moon probe this week

"Our astronauts saw this glow that lit up the sky that shouldn't be there," Michio Kaku, a physics professor at the City University of New York, explained on "CBS This Morning" Friday.

"The moon has quote 'no atmosphere,' so it must be dust of some sort," Kaku said.

NASA needs to know about the atmosphere and the dust if the agency eventually has a permanent manned presence on the moon. He said, "This probe is going to going skim the moon at a distance of about 30 miles ... and give us the latest information about the dust, the atmosphere, hopefully in preparation for a permanent presence on the moon one day."

The probe will launch from Virginia and travel over the U.S. Northeast. "Tonight, go outside, look southeast, and you'll see a speck of light going over the horizon," Kaku said. "It's not a flying saucer; it's not a UFO. It's (NASA's) space probe."

Though the U.S. has traveled to the moon on several occasions, Kaku pointed out there is still much to be learned from visiting the Earth's closest neighbor, particularly if the U.S. is planning to put up shop there someday. "We've only landed there a few times in a few selected spots," he said. "We don't know how thick it is, we don't know the density. And if we're going to have a presence on the moon, we're going to have to know a lot more about the surface."

So will the U.S. eventually have a permanent presence on the moon someday? Kaku said the country is going to get a "shot in the arm" in 2025 when the Chinese plan to plant a flag on the moon.

"We may have a Sputnik moment at that point and that of course will spur interest in the moon once again," he said. "So NASA, I think, is covering its back. It wants to go to Mars, but it can't totally lose interest in the moon because the Chinese, the Indians, and the Japanese have also said that they want to go to the moon, too."

For more with Kaku on the probe, the mystery NASA is trying to solve with it and more on space exploration, watch the video above.