SSERVI: Serving NASA’s Mission to the Moon and Beyond, Part 2

Humanity has plans to expand into space: to the Moon, to Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs), and to the moons of Mars. Like any trip to anywhere, we need to know certain things before we go. We need to know about the climate and about the resources we can expect to find when we get there. We need to know about the places to avoid and the places where it’s safe to stay. Who is working on finding these answers so that we can go back to the Moon, and travel beyond to NEAs and to Mars? The answer is SSERVI. [Click here to read Part 1.]

Back to the Moon

SSERVI still keeps the Moon very much in mind. The lunar geological record still has much to tell us about the earliest history of the Solar System, the origin and evolution of the Earth-Moon system, the geological evolution of rocky planets, and the near-Earth cosmic environment throughout Solar System history. In addition, the lunar surface offers outstanding opportunities for research in astronomy, fundamental physics, human physiology and medicine.

B612 Impact Video 4-20-14 H264 from Spine Films on Vimeo.

Team members from both the NLSI and SSERVI have been intimately connected to recent lunar missions, launched by NASA and other countries. SSERVI researchers at The Southwest Research Institute and Lunar and PIanetary Institute revisited the early evolution of the Moon’s bombardment, when many of the largest and oldest lunar impact craters were formed. Using the best available dynamical models of terrestrial planet formation and giant planet evolution, they discovered important implications for Earth’s habitability.

SSERVI scientists discovered something key to the development of life on Earth. Between 3.5 to 4.5 billion years ago the Earth-Moon system was bombarded by big impactors. Big impactors are objects similar in structure to the asteroid or comet that doomed the dinosaurs. Constant impacts of this kind might have made it very difficult for life to evolve or survive on Earth. However, SSERVI team members discovered that the Earth’s habitable zone was never completely sterilized by these impacts. In their paper in Nature, SSERVI scientists describe breaks during the bombardment that afforded Earth’s biosphere the opportunity to recover. In this scenario, perhaps life on Earth formed very early and has been surviving in one form or another for longer than anyone imagined.

As much as SSERVI’s work on habitability seeks to understand the past, it also reaches towards the future. SSERVI supports lunar missions that have mapped the Moon’s crust, discovered significant amounts of water in a south pole crater, and found evidence for water on the Moon’s surface. NASA’s most recent lunar mission, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), successfully accomplished its science mission after observing the tenuous lunar atmosphere for seven months. In anticipation of future missions, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) continues to map the lunar surface in great detail.

“LRO is an absolutely knock-your-socks-off-mission,” said Greg Schmidt, deputy director of SSERVI and one of the initiators of the Astrobiology Institute. “LRO has returned more data than all of the previous planetary missions combined. The community will be using this data for decades to come.”

Observations from LRO, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), and other satellites have provided unambiguous evidence of water on the lunar surface. Thanks to these missions, we now know that there is ice frozen in the permanently shadowed craters at the Moon’s poles. Water is essential for possible future lunar bases. Finding water on the Moon offers future human explorers a potential source of drinking water and fuel.

Sampling and asteroid - an artists conception of an NEA mission. Image Credit: NASA

Sampling and asteroid – an artists conception of an NEA mission. Image Credit: NASA

The data reaped by LRO and LCROSS helped open a whole new avenue of lunar research. They are now seeking to answer questions about where these water molecules originated and how they get trapped in the bottom of craters. SSERVI scientists at the Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland have mapped the lighting conditions at the lunar poles and discovered areas of permanent sun and shadow down to 60 degrees latitude. This information will be useful for exploration of lunar volatiles in and around these craters.

The next question to answer will be: How can the water best be extracted and used for human missions?

Paving the way forward

With all this in mind, NASA is planning a future endeavor called the Resource Prospector Mission (RPM). RPM’s aim is to land near the colder latitudes of the Moon to look for resources like water that can be used by future explorers.

The Moon is also an ideal platform to use radio astronomy to peer into the early Universe. Radio telescopes placed on the far side of the Moon could “see” further back in time than even the best space-based telescopes. In the vicinity of Earth, radio interference from air, sea and ground communications limits our window into the beginning of time. A radio telescope on the far side of the Moon would be shielded from the “noisy” Earth.

“These observations would take astrobiology as far back as it can go,” said Schmidt. “What we’re doing by looking into the dark ages of the Universe is looking at the moment when stars began to shine.”

NASA’s Ames Research Center director S. Peter Worden linked the search for life in the Universe from the Moon with the search for the origins of the Universe itself.

“The question of how life began is as important as how the Universe began,” said Worden. “Every person I talk to very quickly gets around to ‘Are we alone?’ Astrobiology is asking these big questions. In a broad sense, the expansion of SSERVI beyond lunar science to look at asteroids and the moons of Mars really represents a broadening of NASA’s focus.”

Phobos from Mars Express. Credit: G. Neukum (FU Berlin) et al., Mars Express, DLR, ESA

Phobos from Mars Express. Credit: G. Neukum (FU Berlin) et al., Mars Express, DLR, ESA

To Mars by Way of Two Moons

SSERVI teams have also started planning for science investigations of NEAs and of Mars’ two moons, Phobos and Deimos. According to a 2009 human spaceflight report, a teleoperated mission from Phobos exploring the Martian surface would probably precede a crewed mission. It’s far easier, safer and less expensive to run a mission to Mars’ orbit, or to Phobos or Deimos, than to Mars’ surface. Astronauts could explore the Martian moon in person and remotely operate rovers on the surface of Mars with minimal lag time, and more easily return samples to Earth.

“This is a major area where SSERVI teams will help NASA define the science — robotic missions that can ready the human missions,” said Worden, speaking about his vision for SSERVI and NASA. “People forget, but it may be the most important [question] of all, which is ‘What is the future of our lives?’ NASA is about making life better on Earth, but also expanding it into the Solar System and maybe beyond.”

Martian Moon Deimos from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: HiRISE, MRO, LPL (U. Arizona), NASA

Martian Moon Deimos from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: HiRISE, MRO, LPL (U. Arizona), NASA

With SSERVI’s help, the link between astrobiology, the origin of the Universe and our mission into space in the coming decade is about to get very real — one could even say rock-solid.

Each year SSERVI sponsors an in-person conference at NASA Ames, which is open to the entire science and exploration community. This year’s NASA Exploration Science Forum will be held July 21-23, 2014. Talks will be streamed online and will be archived on the website for later viewing.

SSERVI funding is provided by the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) and the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD).