Return to the Moon
Almost exactly forty years since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history on the dusty plains of the Sea of Tranquillity, NASA has returned to the Moon.
Finding water ice on the Moon is important because, if there is enough water to access, future expeditions will be able to use it to support the habitation and eventual colonization of the Moon. Not only could the water be used for human consumption, but the hydrogen in the water could be converted into rocket propellant.
Farouk El-Baz, the geologist behind the site selection of the Apollo missions, is equally enthusiastic about the return to the Moon. “There are all kinds of questions about the Moon which remain to be answered,” he says. “I think to answer them in the best way is to send robotic missions. We already have all kinds of information from three missions sent to the Moon by India, Japan and China, and [the LRO and LCROSS missions] will add to that.”
However, El-Baz is less enthusiastic about the idea of sending humans back to the Moon. “Our objective in the long run should be an astronauts’ mission to Mars. That’s what we should concentrate on.”
But Vondrak points out that “the intent is not to build spacecraft [on the Moon], but to use it as a place to test systems and to learn how to live and work on another planetary surface”
Returning to the immediate drama of the LRO, however, another ardent supporter of the mission is Bill Hartmann, a lunar specialist since the days of Apollo and the co-developer of the impact theory of the origin of the Moon. Like Vondrak and El-Baz, Hartmann believes that the search for ice on the Moon is very important but - as an inveterate crater enthusiast - he is very excited about what the LRO and LCROSS mission will tell us about the rate at which small craters form on the Moon. This is important because, once that number has been established, he says it will be possible to work out the age of geomorphologic features on the Moon and elsewhere. Hartmann is intrigued by the notion that the LRO data – by telling us the rate of cratering in our part of the solar system - will eventually allow us to date the age of geologic formations on Mars.
On July 17, 2009, NASA released pictures of five of the six Apollo landing sites (images of the Apollo 12 landing site will be acquired next month). The resolution of the images will only get better as the LRO retrieves more data. The most detailed images so far released are from the Apollo 14 landing site at the Fra Mauro highlands – the site that ill-fated Apollo 13 had aimed for. The images from the Apollo 14 site are so detailed that the tracks left by the astronauts between the Lunar Module and the ALSEP instrument package are clearly discernable, “like going into an old building [where] the carpet is worn out down the middle of the hall” as LRO Camera principal investigator Mark Robinson of Arizona State University put it.
The traces of the Apollo 14 astronauts pulling a "shopping cart" while traversing the surface to reach Cone crater are clearly visible in the images. This indicates that the lunar dust layer is brightened by solar radiation, since the disturbed area by human activity exposed darker soil.
Hartmann, when asked (days before these images were published) whether he thought the Apollo landing site images would be the final rebuff for all those who claim the Moon landings were bogus, sighed wearily. “They’ll just say we faked the pictures.”
Now though, any space buff worth the name can compare these new images (http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/LRO/multimedia/lroimages/apollosites.html) with the fantastically detailed map of the Apollo 14 traverses available on Google Moon (http://www.google.com/moon/). A quick comparison shows the match is virtually perfect. So much for the conspiracy theorists!
But, in fact, we did not need these new data to rebuff those nay-sayers of one of humanity’s greatest achievements. Hartmann rightly points out that the science that came out of the Apollo landings is proof enough that America went to the Moon. “The Russians also went to the Moon with their robotic probes, and three of them returned samples to Earth. Do people really believe that the Soviets would have failed to publicize it if their scientific findings of the Moon’s geology had differed from those published by the Americans at the height of the Cold War?”
The real excitement of the LRO and LCROSS missions lies in the future rather than in nostalgia of past glories. It is already clear that the science that LRO and LCROSS will be doing in the next few months will impact directly on humanity’s plans to head for the planets of our solar system, and, ultimately, the stars.