By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News
Nasa is very likely to support plans to despatch a British probe to the Moon, BBC News has learned.
The proposal to send a unmanned mission called Moonlite into orbit around the Moon has the backing of those planning Nasa's own return to the Moon.
The US space agency's administrator, Dr Michael Griffin, has said that he is keen to use UK expertise to carry out scientific studies.
In future, Britain might set up observatories on the lunar surface.
A Nasa study to be published in January has described the plan as "inspirational" and concludes that it fills just the right gap in the US agency's exploration programme.
As a result of such a glowing report, it is understood that Nasa will ask the UK space community to carry out a detailed feasibility study by the end of the summer.
"At the moment, it is extremely likely that it will happen," the project's lead researcher, Alan Smith of the Mullard Space Sciences Laboratory, told BBC News.
"We've got to get our ducks in order, but I think the plan ticks all the right boxes and it's extremely likely that we will have the first British mission to the moon launched in 2012," Professor Smith said.
If all goes as expected, Nasa will officially back the project and become involved next summer.
It is thought that the Indian Space Agency will also be a partner, but Professor Smith says the project will be UK-led.
"The UK needs this sort of thing," he explained. "It will inspire future researchers in these areas; it will inspire young people to get into physics and engineering. It will give UK industry a great lift."
The idea is to send a probe to orbit the Moon, and the spacecraft would then fire four suitcase-sized darts called "penetrators".
These would quite literally enable scientists to scratch below the lunar surface. They would hit the Moon at extremely high speeds, about 300m/s (1080km/h) and penetrate to a depth of two metres.
Once embedded in the surface, instruments in the penetrators would listen out for "Moonquakes".
Analysis of these tremors would shed more light on the chemical and physical structure of the Moon's rocky interior.
The Moonlite concept has been developed by the Mullard Space Sciences Laboratory (MSSL) and Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL).
Nasa administrator Dr Mike Griffin said he was delighted that the UK was pushing forward with the mission.
"The UK may be geographically small but remains one of the world's largest economies," he told BBC News.
"I think for the UK to decide to step forward into space exploration, which is one of the new human frontiers, is all to the good."
Dr Griffin added that he also wanted the UK to have its own astronauts in future.
"I think enormous benefit would accrue to the UK in joining what I often refer to as the world's human spaceflight programme," he suggested.
"The space station programme is approaching a point where it will be behind us; it will be deployed, it will be operational. The UK chose not to join that programme."
But, Dr Griffin added: "The time is now to decide if the UK wants to join the next phase of human spaceflight, which will involve a return to the Moon sometime in the next decade.
"I would very much like to bring our oldest and closest ally into that partnership."