Thursday, October 2, 2014

Gravity Gradients Frame Oceanus Procellarum

Topography of Earth's moon generated from data collected by the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter, aboard NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, with the gravity anomalies bordering the Procellarum region superimposed in blue. The border structures are shown using gravity gradients calculated with data from NASA's Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission. These gravity anomalies are interpreted as ancient lava-flooded rift zones buried beneath the volcanic plains (or maria) on the nearside of the Moon.

Launched as GRAIL A and GRAIL B in September 2011, the probes, renamed Ebb and Flow, operated in a nearly circular orbit near the poles of the moon at an altitude of about 34 miles (55 kilometers) until their mission ended in December 2012. The distance between the twin probes changed slightly as they flew over areas of greater and lesser gravity caused by visible features, such as mountains and craters, and by masses hidden beneath the lunar surface.

The twin spacecraft flew in a nearly circular orbit until the end of the mission on December 17, 2012, when the probes intentionally were sent into the moon's surface. NASA later named the impact site in honor of late astronaut Sally K. Ride, who was America's first woman in space and a member of the GRAIL mission team.

GRAIL's prime and extended science missions generated the highest-resolution gravity field map of any celestial body. The map will provide a better understanding of how Earth and other rocky planets in the solar system formed and evolved.

Image credit: NASA/Colorado School of Mines/MIT/GSFC/Scientific Visualization Studio

Note: For more information, see PIA18821: On the West Coast of the Ocean of Storms (Artist's Concept) and NASA Mission Points to Origin of 'Ocean of Storms' on Earth's Moon.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Apollo 12 and Surveyor 3

On April 17, 1967, NASA's Surveyor 3 spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, on a mission to the lunar surface. A little more than two years after it landed on the moon with the goal of paving the way for a future human mission, the Surveyor 3 spacecraft got a visit from Apollo 12 Commander Charles Conrad Jr. and astronaut Alan L. Bean, who snapped this photo on November 20, 1969.

After Surveyor 1's initial studies of the lunar surface in 1966, Surveyor 3 made further inroads into preparations for human missions to the moon. Using a surface sampler to study the lunar soil, Surveyor 3 conducted experiments to see how the lunar surface would fare against the weight of an Apollo lunar module. The moon lander, which was the second of the Surveyor series to make a soft landing on the moon, also gathered information on the lunar soil's radar reflectivity and thermal properties in addition to transmitting more than 6,000 photographs of its surroundings.

The Apollo 12 Lunar Module, visible in the background at right, landed about 600 feet from Surveyor 3 in the Ocean of Storms. The television camera and several other pieces were taken from Surveyor 3 and brought back to Earth for scientific examination. Here, Conrad examines the Surveyor's TV camera prior to detaching it. Astronaut Richard F. Gordon Jr. remained with the Apollo 12 Command and Service Modules (CSM) in lunar orbit while Conrad and Bean descended in the LM to explore the moon.

Photo credit: NASA

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Lunar North Pole Map

Scientists, using cameras aboard NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), have created the largest high resolution mosaic of our moon's north polar region. The six-and-a-half feet (two-meters)-per-pixel images cover an area equal to more than one-quarter of the United States.

The images making up the mosaic were taken by the two LRO Narrow Angle Cameras, which are part of the instrument suite known as the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC). The cameras can record a tremendous dynamic range of lit and shadowed areas.

Web viewers can zoom in and out, and pan around an area. Constructed from 10,581 pictures, the mosaic provides enough detail to see textures and subtle shading of the lunar terrain. Consistent lighting throughout the images makes it easy to compare different regions.

To view the image with zoom and pan capability, visit

Image credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Lunar Crustal Thickness Map

Global map of crustal thickness of the moon derived from gravity data obtained by NASA's GRAIL spacecraft. The lunar near side is represented on the left hemisphere. The far side is represented in the right hemisphere.

In the left hemisphere, outlined in white, is the Procellarum KREEP Terrane, a large province on the near side of the moon which contains high abundances of potassium, rare earth elements and phosphorus. Excluding the Aitken basin at the south pole (the gray circle on the lower half of the far side hemisphere), there are 12 impact basins with crustal thinning that have diameters greater than 124 miles (200 kilometers) on each hemisphere. Those are marked with black circles. The image is presented in two hemispherical Lambert azimuthal equal-area projections centered over the near side (left), and far side (right) hemispheres.

Map credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Miljkovic

Note: For more information, see NASA's GRAIL Mission Puts a New Face on the Moon.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

LADEE and Lunar Twilight Rays

Back in the 60s and 70s, Apollo astronauts circling the Moon saw something that still puzzles researchers today. About 10 seconds before lunar sunrise or lunar sunset, pale luminous streamers would pop up over the gray horizon. These “twilight rays” were witnessed by crewmembers of Apollo 8, 10, 15 and 17.

Back on Earth, we see twilight rays all the time as shafts of sunlight penetrate evening clouds and haze. The “airless Moon” shouldn’t have such rays, yet the men of Apollo clearly saw them.

Later this week a NASA spacecraft is going back to the Moon to investigate. Slated for launch on September 6, 2013, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (“LADEE” for short) will seek out twilight rays and other mysteries of the lunar atmosphere.

“Yes, the Moon does have an atmosphere,” says Richard Elphic, the project scientist for LADEE at NASA Ames. “It’s just much more tenuous than ours.”

The Moon’s atmosphere is so flimsy — about ten thousand billion times less dense than Earth’s — that a good sneeze would rip through it like a hurricane. “Lunar air” is a gossamer mix of argon-40, which seeps out of the ground due to radioactive decay in the lunar interior, plus elements such as helium, sodium, and potassium, sputtered off the lunar surface by solar wind and micrometeoroids.

None of these gases appear in sufficient quantities, however, to explain the twilight rays.

“We’re missing something,” says Elphic.

The missing piece might be dust. When sunlight falls on the Moon, solar UV radiation electrifies the unprotected topsoil, possibly causing lightweight grains of moondust to rise off the ground, joining the gases already there.

“This electrically charged dust may be what the astronauts saw,” says Elphic. LADEE’s Lunar Dust Experiment will collect and analyze dust in the Moon’s atmosphere to test this hypothesis.

Researchers have a special name for atmospheres as fantastically thin as the Moon’s: an exosphere. On Earth, molecules in the thick air are constantly bumping into each other, spreading pressure and heat in all directions. In an exosphere, however, molecules are so far apart they rarely collide.

“Instead of bumping into each other,” says Elphic, “they bump into the lunar surface.”

Lunar twilight rays sketched by Apollo 17 astronauts.

Air molecules coming into contact with moondust are expected to stick, briefly, before moving on again. Hop and stick, hop and stick. At any given moment millions of molecules could be hopping like bunnies across every square inch of lunar terrain. Ultraviolet, visible light, and mass spectrometers on board LADEE will inventory the molecules present and determine how they behave.

“The dusty, flimsy mix of atoms and molecules in the lunar atmosphere is sure to have alien properties that our experience on Earth has not prepared us to anticipate,” says Elphic.

To find out, LADEE will be working on a deadline. On April 15th of next year, the sunset-colored shadow of Earth will envelop the Moon for a lunar eclipse. It will be a grand sight from Earth, but bad news for LADEE. The spacecraft is solar powered and requires sunlight to charge its batteries. An eclipse could end the mission.

"The current plan," says Elphic, "is, before the eclipse, to guide the spacecraft into the surface of the moon for a final impact that we can study. We’ll be taking data until the very end."

Video credit: NASA

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Bright Explosion on the Moon

For the past 8 years, NASA astronomers have been monitoring the Moon for signs of explosions caused by meteoroids hitting the lunar surface. "Lunar meteor showers" have turned out to be more common than anyone expected, with hundreds of detectable impacts occurring every year.

They've just seen the biggest explosion in the history of the program.

"On March 17, 2013, an object about the size of a small boulder hit the lunar surface in Mare Imbrium," says Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office. "It exploded in a flash nearly 10 times as bright as anything we've ever seen before."

Anyone looking at the Moon at the moment of impact could have seen the explosion--no telescope required. For about one second, the impact site was glowing like a 4th magnitude star.

Ron Suggs, an analyst at the Marshall Space Flight Center, was the first to notice the impact in a digital video recorded by one of the monitoring program's 14-inch telescopes. "It jumped right out at me, it was so bright," he recalls.

The 40 kg meteoroid measuring 0.3 to 0.4 meters wide hit the Moon traveling 56,000 mph. The resulting explosion1 packed as much punch as 5 tons of TNT.

Cooke believes the lunar impact might have been part of a much larger event.

"On the night of March 17, NASA and University of Western Ontario all-sky cameras picked up an unusual number of deep-penetrating meteors right here on Earth," he says. "These fireballs were traveling along nearly identical orbits between Earth and the asteroid belt."

This means Earth and the Moon were pelted by meteoroids at about the same time.

“My working hypothesis is that the two events are related, and that this constitutes a short duration cluster of material encountered by the Earth-Moon system," says Cooke.

One of the goals of the lunar monitoring program is to identify new streams of space debris that pose a potential threat to the Earth-Moon system. The March 17th event seems to be a good candidate.

Controllers of NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter have been notified of the strike. The crater could be as wide as 20 meters, which would make it an easy target for LRO the next time the spacecraft passes over the impact site. Comparing the size of the crater to the brightness of the flash would give researchers a valuable "ground truth" measurement to validate lunar impact models.

Unlike Earth, which has an atmosphere to protect it, the Moon is airless and exposed. "Lunar meteors" crash into the ground with fair frequency. Since the monitoring program began in 2005, NASA’s lunar impact team has detected more than 300 strikes, most orders of magnitude fainter than the March 17th event. Statistically speaking, more than half of all lunar meteors come from known meteoroid streams such as the Perseids and Leonids. The rest are sporadic meteors--random bits of comet and asteroid debris of unknown parentage.

U.S. Space Exploration Policy eventually calls for extended astronaut stays on the lunar surface. Identifying the sources of lunar meteors and measuring their impact rates gives future lunar explorers an idea of what to expect. Is it safe to go on a moonwalk, or not? The middle of March might be a good time to stay inside.

"We'll be keeping an eye out for signs of a repeat performance next year when the Earth-Moon system passes through the same region of space," says Cooke. “Meanwhile, our analysis of the March 17th event continues.”

Footnote: (1) The Moon has no oxygen atmosphere, so how can something explode? Lunar meteors don't require oxygen or combustion to make themselves visible. They hit the ground with so much kinetic energy that even a pebble can make a crater several feet wide. The flash of light comes not from combustion but rather from the thermal glow of molten rock and hot vapors at the impact site.

Video credit: NASA