2013 was a fantastic year for Moon missions, providing a new orbiter, lander and even a rover to take a fresh look at the lunar surface and what lies below. These instruments are exploring both previously studied and completely new areas of lunar science, including a detailed in situ analysis of the chemical composition of the regolith, the characteristics and origin of the elusive lunar atmosphere, and even some experiments targeting the Earth! The next few years are also set to be some exciting ones with plenty of upcoming missions from around the world. The following is a brief overview of what the brand new lunar companions are up to, what is coming up in the near future, and how all of this could enhance our current understanding of the Earth’s natural satellite.
As you’ve probably heard, China recently launched their Chang’e 3 mission in December 2013, which safely landed on the Moon and immediately deployed its Jade Rabbit rover to begin exploring the surface. Just a few of months prior to this, in September, NASA sent its Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission, which is currently in orbit collecting data. These two missions joined three other operational lunar satellites: ex-Earth satellites ARTEMIS P1 + P2, and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) which supplies Moon Zoo with all its high resolution images.
LADEE represents the fifth NASA mission to the Moon since 2009 and is after some interesting new data regarding the tenuous lunar atmosphere. The role of dust transport through the Moon’s exosphere is still very poorly understood, so this satellite is designed to study the process in detail as well as analyse general atmospheric properties. The payload contains a UV and visible spectrometer to study the composition of dust grains, a neutral mass spectrometer to search for noble gases present, and a lunar dust experiment to measure grain impacts at different altitudes. Interestingly, the module also carries a laser communication experiment, which is investigating the viability of using lasers to beam back data to Earth. This technology could be incredibly valuable for future missions farther into space as high volumes of data can be transmitted more efficiently than using radio waves.
So far the mission has already detected atmospheric helium, sodium, neon, potassium and argon-40, as well as confirming a lunar dust exosphere which before was only predicted. The instrument, orbiting between 20 and 150 km, has detected very few dust grains at high altitudes, but this value significantly increased as it descended. LADEE has also measured a few bursts of dust, which are thought to be a consequence of flying through ejecta caused from the impacts of nearby meteorites into the lunar regolith.
Just a few months into LADEE’s mission, the Chinese landed their first craft on another planetary body. The touchdown of Chang’e 3 came more than 40 years after the US sent the first astronauts to walk upon the lunar surface; nonetheless, this does not diminish the mission’s significance at all. The craft, testing out some really exciting new technology and equipment, will be transferring its findings to manned or unmanned missions in the future, heading for the Moon, Mercury or Mars!
The primary mission objective of Chang’e 3 is to analyse the lunar soil composition in situ in much more detail than previously achieved. Its rover, Yutu, or ‘Jade Rabbit’ in English, thus aims to further our understanding of the Moon’s – and in turn the Earth’s – history. At just 1.5 m across, Jade Rabbit carries ground-penetrating radar, cameras, a telescope and spectroscopic instruments to help achieve this goal.
Chang’e 3’s landing destination on the north edge of Mare Imbrium is a different site to those previously visited by the US and USSR missions, with emphasis on how the surface and sub-surface vary from one location to another. Over the course of the mission, it is likely that Moon Zoo will also begin a survey of this area using LRO data, so that participants can help build up a more comprehensive understanding of the site.
Alongside analysing the concentration of elements such as titanium, aluminium, iron, potassium and sodium in the surface materials, there will also be a focus on non-geology related science experiments. On the static landing module one investigation will use an extreme UV camera to monitor the structure and dynamics of Earth’s plamasphere, a region of dense, cold, highly ionized particles surrounding the Earth. A near-UV telescope will also observe stars and galaxies outside the Earth’s opaque (at these wavelengths) atmosphere. As the Moon provides a platform for long, uninterrupted observations, this experiment might inform us whether it can be used for future imaging any more effectively than a telescope in orbital space.
So, these are the data the current instruments are after, but what else do the next few years have in store? Well, in late 2014 NASA’s Orion spacecraft is heading for a flight test to orbit around the Earth with a manned crew. This will be the farthest distance from Earth astronauts have flown since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Also due to launch in the next few years are the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter and lander, which will mark India’s second lunar exploration mission and first touchdown. However, originally scheduled for 2015, it was revealed last week to be postponed until 2016-2017.
In fact, it’s probable that the next set of missions to the Moon will not be coming from nation states, but from private companies competing for the Google Lunar XPRIZE (GLXP). The competition, announced in 2007, has opened up a global space race with a first prize award of $20 million. The second craft to reach the Moon will receive a prize of $5 million, and an extra $5 million is on offer in bonuses to any team that achieves certain goals first. The aim of the GLXP is to inspire and encourage humanity to accomplish significant exploration feats and, in doing so, demonstrate that we are within an age where space exploration is not a monopoly of national governments.
With teams in the running from all over the globe it’s hard to tell where the fourth lunar rover will originate from. However, with a closing date of December 31st 2015 and 18 entrants still in the running, I think it is safe to expect a number of exciting new lunar launches in the next couple of years!
This is China’s Chang’e 3 landing on the Moon over the weekend.
China has now joined the very select club of just 3 nations who have landed on the Moon and this was the first soft landing for 37 years. Just under 3 minutes in the lander rotates to begin its vertical descent onto Sinus Iridum. You can see Moon dust being blown around just before landing.
The 6 wheeled Jade Rabbit (Yutu) lunar rover has now rolled onto the surface and will soon start analysing the lunar regolith.
A big weekend for China!
The Moon is seriously old and our objective here at Moon Zoo is to study its surface with the time and detail that cannot be afforded by a small team of scientists. Earth’s closest neighbour and only natural satellite represents the largest and brightest object in the sky second to the Sun, and plays a crucial physical role to life here on Earth. But as the only other body to have been walked upon by man, what do we actually know about the Moon? Why is it so important to continue to study? And what can Moon Zoo’s 47,000 participants do to help?
One of the main focusses at Moon Zoo is to examine the distribution of craters in various regions in terms of their size and frequency. By determining this relationship, we can then independently estimate surface ages of different areas that have been examined by the community. Discerning these surface ages is key to understanding the history of the early Solar System, as the Moon is thought to have formed just 30-50 million years after its birth 4.5 billion years ago. The colossal impact of the Mars-sized body, Theia, into the early Earth stripped the outermost layer of our planet and returned it to a molten state, whilst the ejecta was captured in orbit and accreted to form the Moon. Although not perfect, this hypothesis explains the relatively small size of the Moon’s core and overall lower density, since it coalesced mostly from lighter crustal material. Whilst the Moon’s internal structure is differentiated into a core, mantle and crust in a similar way to the Earth’s, its rapid cooling saw tectonic and volcanic activity cease around 3.5 billion years ago. The combination of the Moon’s inactive geology and highly tenuous atmosphere has enabled its surface to become one of the most ancient, and well-preserved in the Solar System. From this almost perfectly kept record, we are not only able to look into the Moon’s past, but also unravel some of the mysteries surrounding the Earth’s history, the early Sun, and previous Solar System environments.
On Earth, tectonic, volcanic, and weathering activity has destroyed much of its early record, which is why we look to the Moon to understand our own history. We use observations of different surface features and lunar samples to date particular regions, which can help indicate events that occurred in the inner Solar System. This can, for example, be used to date periods of heavy bombardment from asteroids, which enables us to investigate the frequency of such events in Earth’s history. The samples obtained from the Moon originate from its outermost layer, known as the regolith, which is comprised of fine dust formed by impact processes. The Moon’s practically vacuous atmosphere does little to interfere with this layer, so it is able to preserve the impact fragments and provide insight into the composition and origin of colliding bodies. The regolith also incorporates particles from the solar wind, which allows us to examine how the Sun has changed over its lifetime.
Moon Zoo is helping to uncover the lunar geological evolution by analysing high-resolution images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), in order to expand our knowledge of past impact, tectonic and volcanic activity on the Moon. Alongside crater counting, the other current primary focus is the identification of boulders, which can indicate depth of unconsolidated material. Another outcome of this search will be the production of boulder-density maps, which can be used for future lunar missions to indicate safe (or very hazardous!) landing sites.
To date, the Moon Zoo community has already made over 3.5 million visual classifications with images from LRO, alongside many unusual geological features; the project has also been very successful in identifying spacecraft debris, rover tracks and even astronaut footprints! Data already gathered from the work of Moon Zoo participants on the Apollo 17 landing site are well on their way to producing the first comprehensive paper showing these results, which is scheduled for submission shortly. The current Apollo 12 landing site has also received a great deal of interest and will soon be drawing to a close for full analyses by the Moon Zoo science team. The next step will be analysing an entirely new data set, which will most likely delve into the rare maria on the more mysterious dark side of the Moon.
There is still a great deal more to understand about our planet’s closest relative and the clues it holds to the history of the bodies around it. Until the next stage of the project is launched, we implore you to keep clicking and help demonstrate the strong impact of citizen science on lunar research!
Moon dust is in the news. The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission currently in lunar orbitis about to begin the science phase of examining the thin lunar exosphere and looking for signs of dust fountains and the curious glow of lofted dust on the lunar horizon as reported by several Apollo astronauts.
It’s soft, sticky, scratchy stuff that has a tendency to cling to everything and was responsible for ruining several scientific experiments, causing them to overheat. A big challenge on each Apollo mission was to stop it getting it inside the lunar module. John Young (Apollo 16) thought it tasted “not half bad, ” Gene Cernan (Apollo 17) said it smelled like spent gunpowder and Jack Schmitt (Apollo 17) developed the first case of lunar moon dust “hay fever.”
Apollo missions 12, 14 and 15 left scientific experiments on the Moon (using solar cells) aimed at finding out how fast moon dust would accumulate. A build-up of moon dust blocked sunlight causing the voltage produced by the solar cells to drop. Shielded and unshielded tiny solar cells sent data back to Earth until 1977. NASA assumed the data had been lost until 40 years after the solar cells had been left on the Moon the lunar scientist who developed the experiment, Brian O’Brien, said he had backup copies and began to analyse the data.
The conclusion is that moon dust builds up faster than it should in a place with no atmosphere – just the thinnest of exospheres – at a rate of 1 millimetre every 1,000 years. Why? The strange dusty lunar exosphere holds the answer.
Over to LADEE.
Using stunning Wide Angle Camera (WAC) images the LRO team created this timelapse movie of the rotating Moon. From Earth we don’t see the Moon rotate like this because the Earth’s gravity slowed the Moon down by constantly pulling against the rotation. Eventually, after millions of years, the Moon became tidally locked and now rotates about its axis in about the same time it takes to orbit the Earth so the same face of the Moon always points towards Earth.
Enjoy this spacecraft-eye view of the Moon.
APOD videos on You Tube
If you’ve ever wondered how many clicks you and your fellow Moon Zoo explorers have accumulated there is a way to find out. Click on the MoonometerTM link on the main Moon Zoo page to find not only the number of clicks (3,603,009 at the time of writing) but what those clicks look like in terms of more familiar things, like how many Australias (0.028), how many Disneylands (635,825) or how many Armillaria Ostoyae (24,290).
Keep checking back to see the numbers increase!
Massive thanks to everyone for each and every click. That’s over 3 and a half million clicks in the name of lunar science.
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has created a WAC (Wide Angle Camera) low-Sun mosaic and turned it into this amazing anaglyph. It’s well worth a look. Dig out the red and blues and spend some time floating above the Moon. If you don’t have any 3-D glasses just follow the link in this LROC article and make yourself a pair. Click on the image to go BIG!
Apollo 7 lifts off on October 11 1967
46 years ago this week Apollo 7 carried out its successful C-type low Earth orbit mission. It was vital that this mission – essentially a test flight – was a success in order to meet President Kennedy’s timetable for landing astronauts on the Moon before the end of the ’60s.
Apollo 7 was given the same mission that Apollo 1 had been scheduled to carry out the previous year. A cabin fire which killed the crew of Apollo 1 was a tragedy which left its mark on the Apollo programme. Astronauts were grounded for 20 months while the Apollo Command Module was completely redesigned and passed all new safety tests. Apollo 7’s flight was a complete success and paved the way for the first Moon landing 9 months later.
The 11-day mission was a series of firsts. It was the first Apollo mission to carry a crew into space and the first to use the Saturn IB launch vehicle to do so. Commander Walter (Wally) Schirra was the first person to fly in space three times, being the only person to fly in all of America’s first three space programs (Mercury, Gemini and Apollo) and he was the first astronaut to suffer from a cold in space which spread quickly to the other crew members resulting in some tetchy exchanges between mission control and the crew. The mission also featured the first live TV broadcast from an American spacecraft and was the first three-person American space mission.
Apollo 7’s crew during America’s first TV broadcast from space: Commander Walter Schirra (on the right), Command Module Pilot Donn Eisele, (on the left). Lunar Module Pilot Walter Cunningham is just out of shot.
… as well as 13 other things you might not know we left on the Moon.
1. Metal soccer balls
For over 50 years we have been sending things to the Moon and leaving them there. “We” being humans of planet Earth, specifically the lunar explorers of USA, Russia, Japan, China, India and the ESA nations. In 1959 the first man-made object disturbed the Moon dust when Russia launched the magnificently steam-punked Luna 2. The equipment on board, now scattered over the impact site, included a Geiger counter, magnetometer and micrometeorite detector. But that’s not all Luna 2 had on board. It also carried several pennants bearing the Soviet hammer and sickle seal in the form of 2 small metal soccer balls, one 12 cm and one 7.5 cm in diameter. These balls were designed to explode on impact and scatter the pentagonal pennants over the lunar surface. However, Luna 2 was literally hurled at the Moon so the metal balls, and pennants with them, probably vapourised on impact.
Apart from the 6 descent modules, 6 flags, remnants of scientific packages including the still operational lunar laser ranging retro-reflector arrays, 3 lunar rovers and many footprints the Apollo astronauts also left some surprising things behind on the Moon.
2. Tiny silicon disk
The 3.5 cm silicon disk was left on the moon by the crew of Apollo 11. It contained microscopic images of good will messages from the heads of 74 nations.
3. A family photo
In 1972 at the end of the Apollo 16 mission lunar module pilot Charles Duke left a family photograph on the Moon. The photo shows Charles with his wife Dorothy and their two sons, Charles and Tom. He wrote a message on the back.
‘This is the family of Astronaut Duke from Planet Earth. Landed on the Moon, April 1972.”
4. Astronaut memorial
A small (8.5 cm high) aluminium commemorative sculpture “Fallen Astronaut” designed by Paul Van Hoeydonck was left on the Moon by the crew of Apollo 15 in 1971 along with a list of the astronauts and cosmonauts who had died in the advancement of space exploration.
Commander Dave Scott left a red Bible on the controls of the Lunar Rover. It is just visible on the panel in front of the seats. The Fallen Astronaut memorial is to the right of the rover.
6 & 7. 2 golf balls and a javelin
Alan Shepard became the first person to play golf on the Moon, using golf balls and a club he smuggled on board inside his space suit. He hit two balls just before lift-off, and drove them “miles and miles and miles”. Edgar Mitchell then made a javelin out of a lunar scoop handle and threw that.
8. 12 Hasselblad cameras
It was usual practice to leave mission cameras on the Moon and just return the film magazines but Eugene Cernan, the last human to have walked on the Moon, expressed regret at disposing of his too soon.
“I left my Hasselblad camera there with the lens pointing up at the zenith, the idea being someday someone would come back and find out how much deterioration solar cosmic radiation had on the glass. So, going up the ladder, I never took a photo of my last footstep. How dumb! Wouldn’t it have been better to take the camera with me, get the shot, take the film pack off and then (for weight restrictions) throw the camera away?”
So 12 barely used sought-after Hasselblads are up for grabs.
9&10. A falcon feather and a hammer
Apollo 15 Commander Dave Scott dropped a geological hammer and a falcon feather side by side in a demonstration of Galileo’s theory that with no air resistance both objects would fall at the same rate. The demonstration went perfectly to plan and both hammer and feather remain on the Moon.
11. A four-leaf clover
Yes, there really is a four-leaf clover on the Moon. It was put there by James Irwin as Dave Scott’s commentary in the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal confirms:
Also, with the feather up there, Jim left a four-leaf clover. He dropped it right by the feather… So we have flora and fauna.
12, 13&14. Family fingerprints, a piece of lava from Earth and a photo of a stranger
James Irwin left a number of other curiosities on the Moon: silver medallions with the fingerprints of his wife and children, a small piece of Oregan lava which was given to him by Floyd E Watson, a building inspector he met on a geology field trip and a photograph of a complete stranger with the same name. Shortly before launch James received a letter with a photograph of the sender’s father, who was also called J B Irwin. The letter described how Mr Irwin had always wanted to go to the Moon but had died before witnessing the 1969 Moon landing. James Irwin said: “I thought it would be a gracious gesture to take J B’s picture and leave it on the Moon.”
The latest man-made items to end up on the Moon were Ebb and Flow, the two twin spacecraft of NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission, when they were deliberately crashed into the Moon on 17 December 2012 after the end of their successful gravity-mapping mission.
This image from the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal shows the Apollo 12 lunar module, Intrepid, prior to descent on 19 November 1969. The two large foreground craters are Ptolemaeus and Herschel. Richard Gordon took the image from the Command Service Module, Yankee Clipper, as his colleagues aboard Intrepid, Charles “Pete” Conrad and Alan Bean prepared for the second human mission to the Moon.