Archaeologists, historians, and governments take great care to preserve human history across the globe, protecting monuments of our civilizations and traces of our origins. Even what may seem, at first, like the detritus of existence—footprints left millions of years ago, the contents of well-preserved wastebins—can serve as tangible, informative links to the past.
Now, scientists and officials are working preserve some of humanity’s best-known footprints, left by a giant leap for mankind, by extending those same sorts of historical protections to the Apollo missions’ lunar landing sites. The tricky part is, many such protections require that a site be on the territory of a state or nation—and the US government can’t claim sovereignty over any part of the moon, and doesn’t want to appear as though it’s trying to. But NASA and the New Mexico and California state governments have gotten onboard with the effort to safeguard the sites, spearheaded by New Mexico State University anthropologist Beth O’Leary. A NASA panel recently issued recommendations for protecting the sites that suggest future explorers give a wide berth to the astronautical artifacts left behind, Kenneth Chang reports at the New York Times:
When Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the lunar surface in 1969, they did more than make history and utter unforgettable words. They also deployed seismic sensors that would allow scientists back on Earth to monitor the activity on the moon. Crews from the 12th, 14th, 15th, and 16th iterations of Apollo also deployed sensors, the lot of which took measurements until 1977. Using recently developed techniques of analysis, two teams working independently say they have gone back into that catalog of data and sorted through the statistical noise that has confounded researchers, creating a clear picture of the moon’s core.
The new study provides the first confirmation of layering of the moon’s core and suggests that the moon, like Earth, has a solid inner core surrounded by a molten outer core, researchers said. But the moon’s interior also has another layer of partially melted material – a ring of magma – around its outer core, the study found. [MSNBC]
The moon shakes with moonquakes, but those are more scattered and weaker than the quakes we experience here on the home world, and the moon’s busted-up surface made the signals difficult for Apollo seismic monitors to read. Through a statistical technique called waveform stacking, the new teams could better identify how seismic waves move through the moon, and especially how the core affects them. That, in turn, shows the size and density of the core.
1969: “We landed on the moon. It’s dry.”
2008: “Excellent, we were wrong: It’s not totally dry.”
2010: “Actually, we may have been very wrong about that: There could be even hundreds of times more water there than we thought.”
That last statement is the latest in a rising tide of announcements of water on the moon; DISCOVER covered when the news broke in March, and now the study is out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. To sum up: After reanalyzing moon samples from the Apollo landings and meteorites of lunar origin, a team led by Francis McCubbin calculated a water content of 64 parts per billion to 5 parts per million. That’s paltry compared to even the driest places on Earth. But, they write, “This lower limit range of water contents is at least two orders of magnitude [100X] greater than the previously reported value for the bulk Moon, and the actual source region water contents could be significantly higher.”
As exciting as that is, it raises the question: How did we miss this for 41 years?
Over the last year, scientists have discovered that the moon isn’t a bone-dry place, as we previously imagined. Water ice has been spotted not just at the lunar south pole but also the north pole, and scientists have noted that the north pole deposits contain enough water ice to sustain a human lunar base. Now, scientists studying hundreds of pounds of moon rocks brought back by Apollo astronauts have found that samples containing the mineral apatite have minute traces of water.
The new analyses of the samples, revealed last week at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas, show that the evidence of the moon’s water was right under scientists’ noses for almost 40 years–they just didn’t have sensitive enough instruments to detect it. The water levels detected in Apollo moon rocks and volcanic glasses are in the thousands of parts per million, at most—which explains why analyses of the samples in the late 1960s and early 1970s concluded that the moon was absolutely arid [National Geographic].
Forty years ago today, two men walked on the moon. To celebrate that moment of transcendent ambition and triumph, the world is looking back to July 20, 1969: NASA has released restored video footage of the Apollo 11 landing, and a new NASA moon orbiter has taken snapshots of the Apollo landing site, where left-behind gear still sits on the lunar surface. But for some space buffs, the anniversary has a touch of melancholy to it.
For all the promised “giant leap for mankind” the mission foretold, the prophesied future of moon bases and journeys to Mars, Jupiter and beyond is still science fiction. The last of six moon landings, bringing two men each time to the lunar surface, was in 1972. Since then, no one has left low Earth orbit. For many advocates, there is a consensus that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is suffering from what President Obama this March called “a sense of drift” [Washington Post].
On July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were packing up equipment in their lunar lander, getting ready to blast back to the moon‘s orbit where command module was waiting to bring the Apollo 11 mission back home. But another dramatic scene was also taking place on the lunar surface: the unmanned Russian probe Luna 15 was crashing to the ground. Now, never-before released recording—from a British control room that was monitoring all the lunar activity—transports the listener back to that tight finale of the moon phase of the space race, 40 years ago.
The recordings were made over three days at the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Manchester, where researchers used the Lovell Radio Telescope to listen to transmissions from Apollo 11—and Luna 15. Sir Bernard Lovell, the inventor of the telescope and the founder of Jodrell Bank, can be heard narrating events with conversation from the Apollo 11 astronauts in the background. Sir Bernard notes a change in the orbit of Luna 15 to take it closer to the US landing site and later reports a rumour from a “well-informed source in Moscow” that the craft is about to land. People in Jodrell’s control room can then be heard shouting “it’s landing” and “it’s going down much too fast” as they track Luna 15’s final moments before it crashes [Telegraph].
As the second man to ever walk on the moon (he stepped out of the lunar module about 15 minutes after Neil Armstrong), Buzz Aldrin knows a little something about space exploration, about bold ambitions and great risks. Now, Aldrin is speaking out about NASA, and declaring loudly that the space agency has lost its boldness. The next step in humanity’s exploration of space must be a bootprint on Mars, he says.
Says Aldrin: “As I approach my 80th birthday, I’m in no mood to keep my mouth shut any longer when I see NASA heading down the wrong path. And that’s exactly what I see today. The agency’s current Vision for Space Exploration will waste decades and hundreds of billions of dollars trying to reach the moon by 2020—a glorified rehash of what we did 40 years ago. Instead of a steppingstone to Mars, NASA’s current lunar plan is a detour” [Popular Mechanics].
In an attempt to smooth the way for future manned missions to the moon, a researcher who studied lunar dust almost 40 years ago has returned to his data to investigate why the dust behaves in such problematic ways. The tiny grains cling to spacesuits and scientific instruments, causing myriad problems—clogging, abrasion, inhalation, obfuscation—for lunar visitors and the experiments they leave behind [Scientific American].
Physicist Brian O’Brien worked on several Apollo lunar landing missions from 1969 to 1971, building dust detection devices that were planted on the moon’s surface. In 2006 he learned that NASA had lost the original data from those devices and decided to go back through his own set of data tapes from the experiments, to see if anything new could be learned. “Dust is the number one environmental hazard on the moon, yet its movements and adhesive properties are little understood,” said O’Brien [SPACE.com]. Lunar dust generally refers to only the tiniest particles of lunar regolith, the loose blanket of rock fragments that covers most of the moon’s surface.
Forty years ago today, a brave crew of NASA astronauts were approaching the moon‘s orbit for the first time, in a risky mission that lifted the hearts of Americans in a troubled era. Apollo 8 blasted off on the morning of December 21, and eased into the moon’s orbit on Christmas Eve, when hundreds of millions of people tuned in to hear the astronauts describe their view and read from the Bible. To the public, the Apollo 8 mission was an antidote to all the toxic events that had subverted most of 1968, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the eruption of inner-city rioting and the peak of American involvement in the Vietnam War [Chicago Tribune].
Apollo 8 wasn’t originally intended to go to the moon; it was scheduled to orbit Earth and test the new lunar landing vehicle. But the vehicle wasn’t ready, and the CIA was reporting that the Soviets were on the verge of sending their own manned expedition around the moon, so NASA decided to push ahead. It was a gutsy, dangerous decision, and not just because flying without a lunar lander meant that Apollo 8’s crew – Commander Frank Borman, James Lovell, and Bill Anders – would be stranded without a lifeboat if anything went wrong. Houston still didn’t have the software Apollo would need to navigate to the moon. And the huge Saturn V rocket required to launch a spacecraft beyond the Earth’s gravity was still being perfected, and had never been used on a manned flight. By today’s standards, the risks were unthinkable. Apollo’s program director, Chris Kraft, figured the odds of getting the crew home safely were no better than 50-50 [The Boston Globe].
One of the teams competing for the $20 million top prize in the Google Lunar X Prize has announced its plans for an ambitious series of moon missions, beginning with a proposed trip to the historic Apollo 11 landing site. The team, Astrobotic Technology Inc., wants to send a rover to Tranquility Base in May 2010 to see how the relics left behind by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin have weathered over the 40 years.
The proposal has sparked a debate over whether new rovers can be trusted to not disturb the hallowed ground. Astrobotic Tech says its rover will land far from the Apollo 11 site and will be able to recognize and circumvent footprints and artifacts on the lunar surface, but not everyone shares this optimism. [Space policy expert] John Logsdon … believes the team should first perform trial runs on Earth. “I’d like to see them demonstrate their ability to do a precision landing someplace else before they try it next to the Apollo 11 site,” Logsdon says. “You wouldn’t have to be very far off to come down on top of the flag or something dramatic like that” [Seed].