NASA picks lunar science teams

By Phil Plait | January 9, 2009 6:50 pm

NASA has announced that seven research teams will join forces to become the new Lunar Science Institute, to extend and supplement existing NASA lunar science efforts. Each of the teams will remain at their home institutes, and will participate in LSI virtually (much like the NASA Astrobiology Institute, on which this new facility is based). The home base will be the Ames Research Center in California.

Banner for the Lunar Science Institute

You can read about the seven participating teams (including three from Boulder, w00t!) on the official press release. It covers a lot of scientific ground terrain for lunar studies.

This is pretty cool news. One of the biggest bones of contention amongst scientists when it comes to NASA is the support NASA gives for pure science. This came to a head a couple of years back when NASA made noises that going to the Moon would be done for exploration and not scientific reasons, saying in fact that all they needed to get back to the Moon was "a good map".

When I first heard that, I laughed, but it was a bitter one: at the time, I thought that NASA was going back to the Moon for all the wrong reasons. It seemed that they were doing it only because they needed some big new shiny thing to do. I wanted for us to go back to the Moon so that we could explore it, learn about it, and learn how to settle and eventually colonize a new world. If you want to go to Mars, you’d better learn at the Moon first. It has many of the same issues, but it’s a whole lot closer.

And you cannot avoid science during exploration. Exploration without science is not much more than planting a flag and coming back. We’ve done that already, and it’s not sustainable unless there is an attitude change in the way you are attacking the issue. If you want to go to the Moon and stay there, then you’d better do some scientific learning, or the first good solar flare will turn your astronauts into Toxic Avengers.

In fact, come to think of it… we may need to change the use of the word "astronaut" itself. To me, that’s someone who goes into space for a short time, but the Moon is an actual destination, and eventually we’ll be going back to stay. But that’s a discussion for another time.

The point here is that the creation of the Lunar Science Institute is A Good Thing. It’s also a good sign, since it means NASA is taking the science of the Moon seriously. Because if and when we go back, we’ll need a hell of a lot more than just a good map.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Piece of mind, Science
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Comments (35)

  1. Davidlpf

    Lunarnaut, sounds like a great idea but part of me wonders if this has something to do with Griffin trying keep his job.

  2. Hooray! I’m a big fan of doing low frequency radio astronomy from the Moon. Important cosmology can be done with huge, sensitive arrays without the ionosphere to get in the way. And of course, I’d love to be part of the construction team… Anyway, that’s probably under the “Astrophysics” group.

  3. IVAN3MAN

    Phil, I can tell that you are passionate about this issue because, in the last sentence of your post, you used the word “hell” instead of the more milder “heck” that you usually use.

  4. notscott

    I personally like “mooninite,” although that would more accurately describe a native citizen of the moon.

  5. notscott

    Citizen, inhabitant; whatever.

  6. Max Fagin

    “If you want to go to Mars, you’d better learn at the Moon first. It has many of the same issues, but it’s a whole lot closer.”

    I still don’t buy that statement. I’ve raised this issue in the BA forums a few times, but it seems like every phase of a manned mars mission could be better tested in Earth orbit or in an extream terrestrial environment, like the arctic (as the Mars Society is currently doing with FMARS.)

    It doesn’t make sense to use the moon as a test bed for Mars, they just aren’t anything like each-other. The moon lacks the ability to simulate the most important things a Mars mission will need to accomplish (long transit times, aerobraking, atmospheric landing, searching for subterranean water, searching for life, atmospheric chemistry etc.) These are all tasks which the crew would be expected to do on a Mars mission, and which can be much more accurately simulated and tested here on Earth, or in Earth orbit. The moon doesn’t seem to offer a superior test bed for any of these activities.

    I think there are good reasons to go back to the moon, but learning how to go to mars isn’t one of them.

  7. Dammit. I was hoping that my Balinese shadow-puppets would have ensured that I got the job.

    Some people juggle geese!

  8. “Selenite”, from the root Selene, goddess of the moon, is a mineral (a form of gypsum, CaSO4*2H2O), but would also be a nice romantic name for a moon resident. Actually I came to visit because I came up with what I think is a pretty funny Science LOL that few outside astronomy and science fiction fans would get. You’re welcome to lift it off my post and use it, though I guess I’d appreciate an attribution if you do.

  9. Brian

    It covers a lot of scientific ground terrain for lunar studies.

    Surely lunar studies cannot cover terrain. Would “lunaine” work? Ecch.

    Maybe “ground” really was the best choice….

  10. DoctorOHM

    As for a name. i’ve allways liked cosmonaut like the russians call it.

  11. Mchl

    ‘Selenonaut’ has been used in sci-fi literature for many years now. Just checked: it’s even in dictionary! Wow…

  12. Bein'Silly

    Brian Said :

    “It covers a lot of scientific ground terrain for lunar studies.

    Surely lunar studies cannot cover terrain. Would “lunaine” work? Ecch.

    Maybe “ground” really was the best choice….”

    Regolith? 😉

  13. Bein'Silly

    The BA said :

    “If you want to go to the Moon and stay there, then you’d better do some scientific learning, or the first good solar flare will turn your astronauts into Toxic Avengers.”

    Excellent! 😉

    Can I volunteer to become a toxic avenger then – that sounds cool -will they get to wear capes and fly and stuff? 😉 😀

  14. Bein'Silly

    The Bad Astronomer proposed :

    “In fact, come to think of it… we may need to change the use of the word “astronaut” itself. To me, that’s someone who goes into space for a short time, but the Moon is an actual destination, and eventually we’ll be going back to stay. But that’s a discussion for another time.

    Ah, what’s wrong with now? Seems you’ve started the topic up here anyhow ..

    Mchl likes ‘Selenonaut’ ..
    Lockwood comes close to agreeing with “Selenite” …
    notscott “..personally likes “mooninite,” ..
    While Davidlpf prefers “Lunarnaut.”

    But me?

    Well I reckon Lunatic as was suggested by Ben Bova (I think?) would be the go! 😉

    Not saying they’re crazy but .. 😉

    PS. DoctorOHM Says:

    “As for a name. i’ve allways liked cosmonaut like the russians call it.”

    Meh. Cosmos-naut is the same as astronaut as is the Chinese term ‘taikonaut’. All those imply time living / travelling in space (or the cosmos) rather than on the Moon -least in my ‘umble ‘pinion anyhow. Reckon we need a Moon-specific one :

    Moonies, Mooners .. Hmm .. other implications there least for Aussies! 😉

    Lunatics ..well that’s a bit nuts. 😉

    Selenites? Selenese? Seleneans?

    Hmm .. first ‘un there sounds like a mineral. Second sounds like Senegalese African nation) a bit too close maybe? ‘Spose that leaves uz with Selenean or Selenian then. Or are there more ideas?

  15. Bein'Silly

    Oh, wait one lucky last comment because I forgot to say earlier -this whole new NASA special moon-unit thingy sounds NEAT!

    Or wait is that thecomet!? 😉

    Seriously -it sounds like a good idea & so what if it is Griffin tryin’ to keep his job (& heck, these days who isn’t?) I’m still in favour. :-)

  16. BoozeHound

    Moonshiners?

    Moonshine ismy sunshine is my .. Urp! Pazzuz the bottle ! 😉

  17. @Max Fagin:
    “The moon doesn’t seem to offer a superior test bed for any of these activities.”

    Valid points indeed and, yes, some experiences in orbiting around Earth or working in a remote arctic outpost would simulate, in part, a Mars encounter. However, you’ve also got to take into account the perpective of where one actually is in doing all this Mars-preparation stuff. The learning curve of actually going to another planet (like the Moon), or working there, is expoentially greater in expereiences than what we’d encounter in a capsule orbiting around the Earth on in an outpost.

    As you know, we currently are learning vast amounts of information about aspects related to the gravity problem (e.g. similarities in landing a vehicle on Earth and Mars) and the long-duration problems(psychological tests at Arctic, ISS, marine..etc.,), here on Earth or in orbit. These will greatly advantage us for a Mars encounter. However, where are the experiences of actually having someone (or a group of individuals) approach another planet that is totally different to yours, that you’re not quite sure what to expect — no matter what experiences you’ve had orbiting around Earth or in a remote outpost, or, what rovers and missions have informed you about that planet –, and that you can look back at your home planet while standing on another? The answer is, of course, the Moon (aka Apollo experiences etc.). When one is at or on another planet, experiences — both physically and psychologically — are totally new, and are areas that we can’t possibly learn about or experience whilst working or in orbit around a planet that we see as home.

    I think we will have to make some compromises eventually when we look at both prospects in decisions of going to the Moon first or Mars, however, for now, greater minds than yours or mine see that the Moon is the way towards preparation in exploration of other worlds. I, for one, am with them.

    John (http://www.moonposter.ie)
    Moonposter — a poster on important aspects about the Moon
    DIY Moon Globe — build it yourself

  18. Good points about having science remain as a key component of any adventures to the Moon. I’m re-reading Ben Bova’s Mars (just a little further than the Moon). And 4 of the six astronauts (aresnauts, martianaut) are scientists.

    I just blogged (shameless plug) about the MIT’s Space Policy & Society Group’s position paper on why human space exploration is necessary. The paper is a very good read. They don’t have science as a particularly good reason for sending people into the vacuum. I don’t agree with that of course (although their argument is very logical).

  19. Charles Boyer

    Given that the first missions of Apollo did have an engineering orientation, science was conducted, but at the time, and even today, a lunar journey and safe return are no small feat. All too often revisionist historians overlook the fact that at the time Apollo was conducted — successfully — nothing like it had been done. And nothing like it has been done since. Still, that does not mean that Apollo had little or no scientific value, and given the limitations of the system, much was done.

    In fact, the idea that Apollo “planted a flag and came back” is folly and insulting to those who conducted research from Apollo return samples, as well as those that designed and conducted research from other experiments set up by the astronauts of the lunar surface. Apollo is all too often reduced to sounding like astronauts hopped out of the LEM, propped up a flag and took a few pictures, where the truth is far different. I invite you to read any of the Apollo Mission Reports and contradict that statement. It is impossible to do so with any intellectual honesty.

    Thanks to Apollo return samples, there is a consensus on the Impact Theory of lunar formation. The now-discredited co-formation theory was more or less put to rest because of Apollo return samples. Also, the sister-body theory that the moon was a wayward planetoid captured by the Earth’s gravity was also disproven.

    Additionally, the early geologic history of the moon was studied using lunar samples retrieved from the lunar regolith and returned by astronauts who participated in the missions.

    Apollo 16 proved the volcanic history of the moon, which was strongly debated up to that point.

    Ap0llo return samples still have value today, and once again, I point out the Helium-3 theory proven only recently by Apollo samples. The samples remaining do not sit in museums or private collections and they are still being studied to this day.

    Finally, keep in mind that the scientific value of Apollo — while substantial — was limited by the short-sighted decision to cancel Apollos 18, 19, and 20 — each of which were planned for even more ambitious scientific results than any of the missions beforehand. For a taste of what could have been accomplished, read the Apollo 17 results or talk to Harrison Schmidt. I venture to say that he has forgotten more about Apollo’s scientific aims and results than any contemporary historian.

  20. Sili

    Lunatics, duh.

    Telescopes on the moon ftw!

    And Humogous Baseline Interferometry!

  21. Doug A

    Perhaps I’m too cynical, but when did creating a new bureaucratic layer signal an increased importance of a topic? [See Homeland Security, Department of] Does this new institute come with a line of funding? New fellowship positions?

  22. Reply to Doug: Yes, the Lunar Science Institute comes with new funding. Part of our objective is also to help build a new generation of lunar scientists. Check out our website at http://lunarscience.nasa.gov

  23. Geo-Steve

    As a graduate student in lunar science who would have been part of one of the LSI research teams had the proposal I would have been involved with been successful, I’ll offer a different viewpoint on the selections.

    The LSI is one of the best ideas NASA has had in decades. Though I believe (as many in the community do) that the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) is underfunded, it is wonderful to new money, and a large amount of it mind you, being infused into lunar science. The LSI was poised to become the “center”, if you will, of lunar science, but I believe the proposals selected will undermine its potential and they do not do credit to the true breadth of lunar research. In no way am I suggesting that the proposals chosen we’re faulty or the people involved not dedicated, intelligent scientists, but I do not believe the 7 selections do the lunar science community justice.

    Lunar science. What comes to your heard when you hear it. I’d bet my lunch that for most it is Apollo. While Apollo was undoubtedly politically driven, it COMPLETELY revolutionized lunar science. Damn near 75% of what we know about the Moon could have been determined from Armstrong’s contingency scoop. Lunar science is based almost entirely on samples. Our models for lunar formation and and differentiation (the giant impact and lunar magma ocean models) have become the paradigms under which all lunar data are interpreted. Sadly, in my opinion, only one sample analysis team (LPI/JSC) was chosen for the LSI. And because samples are the foundation of lunar science, this choice kept many of the scientists who have literally written the books on the Moon out of the LSI. Proposals based on sample analysis from such lunar science powerhouses such as Washington U. in Stl., U. of New Mexico, ASU, UCLA and Hawaii were rejected, again, keeping many premiere institutions and scientists out of the LSI. This was a huge mistake, in my opinion.

    One may say, “Well, there could only be 7, its just too bad we couldn’t fund there others”. While this is true, money is always limited, look at the 7 funded proposals. 6 of the 7 proposals are based on surface science. Clearly, the LSI is being used as a research organization dedicated to the future of human exploration. Human exploration of the Moon is a wonderful thing that I would love to be a part of one day, but this is the Lunar SCIENCE Institute; there is a LOT more to lunar SCIENCE than what is on the surface. This is being funded by the SMD; if surface exploration science is what the LSI was designed to research, it should not have been funded by the SMD and it should have been advertised as such.

    I think the whole of these selections is NASA putting flags and footprints first…

  24. Grand Lunar

    “If you want to go to Mars, you’d better learn at the Moon first. ”

    This is why I disagree with those that say we should skip the moon and go straight to Mars.
    To me, that’s a bad idea.
    What we learn at the moon can help us prepare better for Mars. Many of the same lessons can be applied, IMO.

    Oh, how I envy the people working on these teams. If only I picked a different direction…..

  25. Both Moon and Mars and beyond too!

    We can do it easily if the funding and the will is there .. the tragedy is the latter two haven’t been there for all too long a period.

    Whereas having the will and funding for futile wars on Earth are all too easy to come by – witness Iraq and Gaza. Imagine if instead of sending thousands of troops to where many have died in the quest against Saddam’s imaginary WMD’s – and funding Israeli war crimes and further breaches of international law – we’d put those same resources, cash and effort into landing on the Moon, Mars and other space exploration ideas ..How much better off we’d be now. If only ..

  26. Make that :

    “Imagine if instead of sending thousands of troops to *Iraq* where many have died in the quest against Saddam’s imaginary WMD’s – and funding Israeli war crimes and further breaches of international law – we’d put those same resources, cash and effort into landing on the Moon, Mars and other space exploration ideas ..How much better off we’d be now. If only ..”

    Truth is we could’ve returned to the Moon and sent people to Mars back in the 1980’s if there’d been sufficent directionand funds – or never stopped going there and going forward.

    It also amazes me that feminists don’t get angrier that there’s never yet been a *woman* on the Moon – 40 years after the first dozen men landed there!

  27. Max Fagin

    “What we learn at the moon can help us prepare better for Mars. Many of the same lessons can be applied, IMO.”

    Can you give an example of a Mars mission component that would be better simulated on the moon than in an arid terrestrial environment, or in Earth orbit? I have yet to hear of any advantages that the moon offers as a Martian test bed.

    Other than being another celestial body, the moon just doesn’t seem to have anything in common with Mars. Atmospheric properties, surface temperature, weather patterns, composition, geologic history, surface gravity, day length; the Earth wins over the moon as a better analog for the Martian environment in all of these factors. This is to say nothing of the fact that testing Martian equipment on Earth will be orders of magnitude cheaper than doing so on the moon.

    The moon does have it’s uses. As a source of He3, as a base for telescopes, as a great place to build a space elevator. But not as a martian analog. It just doesn’t make any sense. Going to the moon to practice the exploration of Mars would be like going to Siberia to practice building the panama canal.

  28. Does it really matter if Nasa says we are going to the moon for exploration and not scientific reasons. Won’t one inevitably lead to the other? Won’t you pretty much have to do one to do the other? Yes, I wish the statements had the right attitude from the beginning, but it seems that if NASA is committed to going, unless we say we are going there to build condos, it seems the pure science people will get what they want anyway.

  29. Geo-Steve

    Well, first of all, NASA has never said we are going back to the Moon for non-scientific reasons. The point is that the funding for going back to the Moon is already there; its called the Constellation program. Like I said previously, the LSI is about Lunar Science, and these selections almost completely neglect science that deals with anything that occurred below the surface at any point in the Moon’s history, which constitutes the vast majority of lunar science. If you’re goal is to learn about the Moon, how do you ignore everything below the surface? The money associated with the LSI could have been used to expand our knowledge of a wide range of topics in lunar science. Choosing such a narrow range of proposals does a disservice to the entire lunar science community, both exploration and research oriented. These grants are big chunks of change, in the $5 million dollar range. Is the almost non-existent lunar atmosphere really the best place to sink that amount of funding?

    A more balanced choice of research areas would have put us in a far better position to decide things like where to go to better expand our sample set, what kinds of lithologies we should be looking for on the ground, etc. And are the pure science people really getting what they want when a very large portion of lunar science has been largely ignored and we end up in a far more limited ability to plan for future human missions and to interpret subsequent data? My point is that NASA could have done more for itself and gotten more significant returns had it been more balanced in its awards.

  30. Cheyenne

    “….and eventually we’ll be going back to stay. But that’s a discussion for another time.”

    Hmmmm…………actually, kind of sounds like a discussion for right now…

  31. Cheyenne

    “We’re going to the Moon to learn how to live and work on another world. It’s that simple.”- Spudis

    His name is perfect as the metaphor for how incomprehensibly idiotic that mission statement is.

  32. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    That’s good! Personally I hope the science will make discoveries about, or even eventually have as one focus, the likely best existing relatively unprocessed record of early Earth geological and biological history by ejecta impacting the moon, as I’m interested in early life and how it got started. And at least there seems to be a few early programs on impacts.

  33. tim

    NASA Lunar Science Institute: Colorado Center for Lunar Dust and Atmospheric Studies; principal investigator Mihaly Horanyi, University of Colorado in Boulder
    Yay for Mihaly! Yet another great program to come out of CU-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.

  34. Hello!
    Take a real good look at these one of a kind outstandig extremely rare metallic grains + round glass particles = LUNAR SOIL !!!!!! The size of these two scientifically important metallic grains + round glass particles are exactly the same as the famous Lunar soil collected on the Moon by NASA Apollo mission which are amazing, even the structure are exactly the same if you look close and compare the pictures with each other. A ( basalt ), B ( anorthosite ), C ( breccia ) and D ( round glass particles ) m.m. Here comes some more important fact and information about my extreme metallic grains also known as metallic particles written by NASA: Lunar metallic particle “Mini-Moon” recovered from the Moon may be a mound detached from a sphere of silicate glass. Erosion and pitting of the particle may have been caused by passage trough a cloud of hot gas and particulate matter formed by meteorite impact on the Lunar surface. This explanation is in contrast to the theory that the particle was meteoritically derived molten material that was furrowed during solidification after Lunar impact, subsequently pitted by high-velocity particles, and then abraded and polished by drifting dust while on the Lunar surface.

    Here are my new important Mini-Moon ( spherule ) certificate and Lunar meteorites analyze results done by Dr.Yasunori MIURA, Lunar and meteorite scientist at Yamaguchi University in Japan. The analyze was showing the geniue Lunar origin, of highest scientifically value from the Moon !!! http://outdoors.webshots.com/album/577913735BIgNzk

    Dr.Yasunori Miura
    Lunar and meteorites scientist,
    NASA PI in 1986 for Apollo samples.
    MIURA recent moon and asteroid papers for NASA.
    http://www.lpi.usra.edu/meetings/lpsc2010/pdf/2462.pdf
    http://www.lpi.usra.edu/meetings/recon2006/pdf/3008.pdf
    http://www.lpi.usra.edu/meetings/lpsc2008/pdf/2027.pdf
    http://www.lpi.usra.edu/meetings/leagilewg2008/pdf/4047.pdf

    Welcome to the worlds most extreme Lunar meteorites !!
    http://community.webshots.com/user/LunarMeteorites

    Best Wishes /// Göran Lindfors
    mars@tele2.se

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