- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Thanks to a long-lasting orbiter, scientists have been able to create a detailed map of the surface of the moon, including the dark side, which never points toward earth.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter last month celebrated its 10th anniversary of surveying the moon’s mountains and valleys, as NASA gears up to put people on the moon by 2024. The LRO’s map-making success will make easier for the mission to return astronauts to the moon in 2024, says one of the space agency’s top astronomers.

“Now we basically know every bump and wiggle and every little rock,” said Michelle Thaller, assistant director for science communication at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center near Greenbelt, Maryland.

Launched in 2009, the orbiter originally was planned to operate for only two years, and has long exceeded its mission’s length. It fires pulses of light about 28 times per second in one of the most accurate maps of natural objects seen from the sky on Earth.

NASA plans for astronauts, including the first woman, to set foot on the lunar surface in 2024. Thanks to the orbiter’s detailed maps, scientists and engineers now know the best landing places on the moon, which was not possible to predict when Apollo 11 first landed in 1969, Ms. Thaller said.

“One of the things that made the Apollo 11 mission so difficult, there were smaller craters that were so dangerous to land on that we didn’t know about,” she said.

The orbiter has taken photos of the still-standing flags placed by Apollo astronauts 50 years ago, and also has detected evidence that the moon is gradually shrinking.

The LRO also has found sites of possible frozen water on the lunar south pole, which is where NASA plans to land astronauts.

Water is a great resource for astronauts on the moon not only for them to drink but also to make fuel, if needed, Ms. Thaller said.

“A really great thing for human exploration is that there would be water,” the astronomer said.

The orbiter’s technology also is playing a significant role in NASA’s Moon to Mars project.

“The public doesn’t realize this ‘OK, we went there 50 years ago, why would you go back?’” Ms. Thaller said. “Well, we just scratched the surface.”

She said that said she, like many NASA scientists, started her career inspired by the Apollo program.

“There was this moment that humanity was walking somewhere other than Earth I could never get my mind off that or the rest of my life,” she said. “I’ve wanted to work for NASA for as long as I knew the concept of the job.”

She said “it’s about time we got back” to the moon for new scientific discoveries and to lay the groundwork to go to Mars.

“The moon is literally right there above us. It has the history of the solar system,” Ms. Thaller said. “There is no way the new trip to the moon isn’t going to be revolutionary.”

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