Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Although it has been more than 30 years since humankind set foot on the moon, scientists haven’t stopped learning about it, says Marilyn Lindstrom, program scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Southwest. In fact, as technology has progressed, scientists have been able to better understand the information collected by the Apollo program, in which astronaut Neil Armstrong set the first foot on the moon, in 1969.

“We’ve already got a pretty good picture of the moon, but we don’t understand it thoroughly,” she says. “It will be a very long time until we understand Mars thoroughly. The moon is the cornerstone for trying to understand other planets.”

Amid the buzz about one day traveling to Mars or understanding the rings of Saturn, sometimes it seems the importance of further exploring the moon takes a back seat, especially because manned flights already have traveled there successfully. However, studying the moon is an integral part of learning about Earth and the universe at large.

Using an ion microprobe is among the new techniques for examining the lunar samples collected from the Apollo program, says Ms. Lindstrom, who holds a doctorate in geochemistry. The device allows scientists to analyze small grains for chemical elements that may exist in tiny amounts. Seeing the chemical elements in minerals at small concentration levels allows researchers to better grasp how the moon formed.

Other new instruments allow scientists to study the processes of how the moon formed and the speed at which it was created.

In addition to the study of meteorite samples from the moon, the search for new samples on Earth is ongoing in Antarctica, says Bill Cassidy, founder of Ansmet, the Antarctic Search for Meteorites. Ansmet is a program supported by grants from the Office of Polar Programs at the U.S. National Science Foundation in Arlington and by the Solar System Exploration Division of NASA.

The first Antarctic meteorite was discovered in 1912 by an Australian expedition. However, because most meteorites come from asteroids, it wasn’t until 1981 that any of them were identified as originating from the moon.

The most helpful aspect of the lunar meteorites found on Earth is that they sample the moon’s surface in a geographically unbiased manner, says Mr. Cassidy, who holds a doctorate in geochemistry. Astronauts from previous missions have collected materials from only about 4 percent of the lunar surface. For instance, the Apollo program remained mostly near the equator of the moon for safety purposes. Because samples found on Earth come from multiple areas of the moon, this assists scientists in confirming data collected by satellites that have orbited the moon.

The price tag attached to Mr. Cassidy’s explorations is significantly less than that for a manned mission to outer space, he says. However, Mr. Cassidy fully supports human exploration of the planetary object.

“The lunar samples we find on Earth are lunar samples that it didn’t cost that much to get,” he says. “If you send astronauts to the moon, it costs a lot of money. If you can find lunar samples on Earth, it’s a cheap advantage.”

As scientists continue to collect lunar meteorites on the Earth’s surface, they can compare their findings with not only the data of the Apollo program, but also the two orbiting missions conducted in the 1990s, says Paul Spudis, senior staff scientist at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel.

Mr. Spudis, who holds a doctorate in geology, was the deputy team leader on the Clementine orbiter mission to the moon in 1994, which mapped most of the satellite’s surface. In 1998, the Lunar Prospector orbiter mission detailed the moon’s chemical composition.

Understanding the makeup of the moon helps scientists gauge what resources might be there for humans who would live on the satellite long-term, Mr. Spudis says. In accordance with President Bush’s plan to return to the moon as early as 2015, with hopes of sending a manned mission to Mars, Mr. Spudis says, a transport system between the Earth and moon can be established.

“It has economic and national-security implications,” Mr. Spudis says. “The reason we’re going back to the moon is to take the first step on a long journey. If you can go to the moon from Earth routinely, you can go to the planets. Then the solar system is your oyster.”

Right now, a vehicle to allow people to travel to the moon doesn’t exist and would need to be designed and tested. Even with the Apollo landings, the longest stay on the moon was three days, whereas Mr. Bush has called for a long-term project. In the meantime, a Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will be launched in 2008. NASA also announced recently the opportunity to form a team of scientists and engineers to propose a mission to go to the south-pole basin of the moon under its program called New Frontiers.

Scientists are hopeful that ice deposits near the poles are among the possible resources on the moon, says Bruce Campbell, planetary scientist at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Southwest. Mr. Campbell, who holds a doctorate in geophysics, also imagines that some areas of the moon contain large amounts of iron and titanium, potential building materials. Also, hydrogen, which is found in some lunar rocks and surface soil, could be used for fuel.

“If you want to explore a place like the moon, you could potentially bring everything with you, but you’d really like to learn how to extract resources,” he says. “If you could get water, hydrogen and various metals, you would have a lot of resources at hand.”

Understanding more about the moon’s gravity field also would help future exploration, says Brad Jolliff, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who is compiling a book titled “New Views of the Moon,” which will contain contributions from about 50 authors.

Mr. Jolliff, who holds a doctorate in geology, says the information is important to help maintain a satellite mission’s orbit around the moon without crashing.

“The moon is our nearest neighbor,” he says. “It’s a complex planetary object with a history that’s very closely tied to the history of our own planet. … It provides a cornerstone for our understanding of planetary science.”

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