NASA may send robotic astronauts to the Moon...and soon!

With the cancellation of the Constellation project, it looks like Americans aren't headed back to the Moon anytime soon - at least, not human Americans. NASA's mysterious Project M aims to send an android to the Moon inside three years.

The project hasn't yet secured NASA funding nor money from the U.S. government, so Project M is far from official, but it's one of the most exciting projects to come down NASA's R&D pipeline in quite some time, and it's thought to be very far along in the planning stages.

The idea is to send a stripped-down rocket - after all, a robotic mission won't require oxygen, food, or water - to the Moon. The lone crew member will be a humanoid walking robot whose manipulator arms will closely resemble those of humans. The robot would operate both independently and under the control of humans back at NASA.

Once the robot is in place, the potential applications are enormous. Most practically, the robot can be used to test out the engineering logistics of long-term lunar (or even Martian) occupation, giving future astronauts a better sense of the challenges faced in building extraterrestrial constructions. The more advanced manipulator arms would also open up opportunities for more sophisticated scientific experiments than those afforded by more basic rovers.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of Project M, at least in the (for better or worse) all-important world of public relations, is its almost absurd ambition. The project aims to get a robot on the Moon in just three years - you know, around the time Iron Man 3 comes out. It's a daring, ambitious project that comes at a time for NASA when, in the wake of the cancellation of Constellation and the retirement of the space shuttles, both seem to be in relatively short supply. But don't take our word for it - check out the concept animation below detailing just how Project M would work.

[Fast Company]