Since we last took samples from the moon’s surface 50 years ago, we’re finally going back—and this time, we’ll have better tools.
With the successful test flight of Artemis 1 in December and 50 years since the last Apollo mission to the moon in 1972, astronomers and space fans are excited about the idea of people going back to the moon. On the other hand, Planetary scientists are especially happy to learn what future crewed Artemis missions and other robot explorers will teach them. In December 2022, at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, scientists who study the moon talked about some of the mysteries they are trying to solve with data from the Apollo program and other sources, as well as how Artemis will help them learn more about our moon as a whole.
Even though the Apollo missions happened more than 30 years ago, the moon samples brought back from those trips keep scientists busy. Geologists interested in the moon’s volcanic history are very interested in the rocks and minerals in the Apollo samples. These rocks and minerals range from small glass beads to crystals formed in magma. The moon doesn’t have any active volcanoes anymore, but it used to have many of them. The Mare, which are known as the moon’s “seas,” are just plains of hardened lava.
Aleksandra Gawronska, a planetary scientist at Miami University in Ohio, used crystals from lunar rocks to find out what happened in the magma long ago. Geologists on Earth use this method a lot, and now scientists who study the moon are figuring out how to use it. And that’s not all. Gawronska told her colleagues that based on her results, “lunar magmatic systems might be like their counterparts on Earth.”
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Apollo missions to the lunar highlands also used seismic experiments. These famously found “moonquakes,” which gave scientists a look at the moon’s interior and helped them measure the depth of the regolith, which forms when the bedrock breaks down. Based on what Apollo saw, the soil was 16 feet (5 meters) deep in the dark volcanic areas called Mare and 33 feet (10 meters) deep in the older, more cratered highlands. Schelin Ireland, also a planetary scientist at Miami University, said in another talk that recent lava flows, like Mare, have been hit less. “There is much less regolith in these young places.”
But the Apollo missions only looked at new, young craters in the highlands, which aren’t very common, so Ireland worries that the data doesn’t show what most of the moon looks like. Recent research she presented at the conference backs this up, showing that much of the regolith on the moon is even more profound than what the Apollo experiments showed around the few young craters astronauts have visited so far. This means that future missions must keep this in mind and look at a broader range of areas.
In terms of future missions, one is already set up to study a different part of the moon’s geology: its magnetic field. Sarah Vines is a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Maryland. She is working on NASA’s Lunar Vertex mission, a probe and rover that will launch in 2024. This project will look into the magnetic rocks on the moon’s surface, which is strange because they don’t have a magnetic field to make them. Vines said in a presentation, “That’s one of the biggest mysteries here.” “How did these magnetic irregularities start, and how have they changed over time?”
Planetary scientists are also using data from more recent lunar missions, like the LCROSS impactor that hit the Cabeus Crater at the lunar south pole in 2009, to find valuable materials like water, hydrogen, and oxygen on the moon. Most of these volatile materials are located on crater floors near the moon’s poles, always in the dark. Astronomers are still trying to figure out how these materials got there and how many there are. They are using valuable LCROSS data to do this.
One of the small CubeSats that Artemis 1 sent to the moon gave scientists another way to look into PSRs. Craig Hardgrove, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University and the leader of the LunaH-Map mission, says that the Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper (LunaH-Map) is only about the size of a large cereal box. Its goal was to map hydrogen deposits at the moon’s south pole by flying close to the surface and looking 3 feet (1 meter) down. Hardgrave told his colleagues that the instrument on LunaH-Map is alive and well but that the propulsion system is having trouble. If the team doesn’t get it going again by the middle of January, LunaH-Map might not be able to map those deposits after all.
Still, many missions are being planned, so LunaH-Map is by no means our last chance to learn about PSRs. Why aren’t these strange deposits bigger? This is another question about them. Some astronomers think that small meteoroids could hit the ice and blow off some of it, letting the water inside escape into space. Micrometeoroids, which are small pieces of rock and other debris moving at high speeds, are also a significant threat to the safety of people and equipment in space. They would also limit how long a spacecraft could stay on the moon without getting damaged.
As part of the Artemis program, scientists are also making a new tool called the Lunar Meteoroid Monitor, or LMM, which they hope will be able to count these impacts. Similar measurements were taken on the Apollo missions, but this new project would be a big step forward in technology. Alex Doner, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder who is working on the project, says that LMM would not only tell us how likely it is that a micrometeoroid will hit the moon, but it would also let us “identify and map resources in lunar PSRs.”
All of these geological studies are paving the way for us to learn a lot more about the planet closest to us. This new information about the moon’s structure, geology, and water deposits is essential for understanding the history of our solar system and figuring out how people might live on the moon in the future.
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