Long-running lunar mission reveals moon’s surprises

After 7 years, orbiter team asks NASA for two more

mountains near Tycho Crater

MOON MOUNTAINS  A 15-kilometer-wide complex of mountains rises 2 kilometers above the center of Tycho Crater on the moon in this 2011 picture from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. 

LRO/GSFC/NASA, Arizona State Univ.

Not all cosmic mysteries lie light-years away. Some secrets are being unearthed on our nearest neighbor, about a quarter of a million miles from home.

For almost seven years, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has been keeping a close eye on the moon. During its tenure, the spacecraft has cataloged craters, pinpointed subsurface deposits of water ice and found evidence of recent volcanic activity. It has even witnessed crashes by three other spacecraft. (One, LCROSS, launched a plume of ejecta from the south pole that scientists searched for water vapor.)  

“No other mission has orbited the moon for as long as LRO has,” says Noah Petro, a geologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Constant lunar vigilance has “really pushed our understanding of how the moon changes today, over the last billion years and what happened early on.” A July 15 special issue of Icarus celebrates the mission’s many discoveries, which fill out not only the moon’s story, but also reveal how Earth and other rocky planets have been pummeled by space debris over the last 4 billion or so years.

When LRO launched on June 18, 2009, its goals were more modest. The spacecraft was sent to scout landing sites for future astronaut expeditions, hunt for resources such as water and better understand the radiation hazards that human crews would face. Since completing its original one-year assignment, the mission has been extended several times. LRO plans to stay busy through September, and the team has asked NASA for two more years.  

IN THE SHADOWS Water ice lurks within permanently shadowed craters at the moon’s south pole, seen in this mosaic from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. LRO/GSFC/NASA, Arizona State Univ.

Water ice turned up in some unexpected places. Other spacecraft had previously seen hints of water, but none could map precisely where it was. Researchers suspected that water lay within permanently shadowed craters at the poles, and LRO did find evidence of ice there. But LRO also found that not all shady spots harbor water, and not all water is found in the shadows — some appears to hide under soil that sits in direct sunlight.

“That was bit of a surprise,” says LRO project scientist John Keller, also at Goddard. Looking at temperature alone, it seems, isn’t enough for understanding the history of water on the moon. In the polar shadows, where temperatures hover around –250° Celsius, water ice can endure for billions of years. But elsewhere, water may have been trapped more recently and protected by the terrain. “There’s an interplay with time, temperature and topography underlying this water story,” says Keller.

How the various water deposits are implanted and shuffled about is one enduring puzzle. How small subterraneous pockets stayed warm for so long after the moon formed is another. Lava oozed on the surface in the last 100 million years, judging by smooth, dark terrains that are sparsely cratered. “This flies in the face with what was known about the moon,” Petro says. “We thought lunar volcanism ended about a billion years ago.”

Some changes are much more recent. In 2013, Earth-based telescopes detected a flash of light from the moon. LRO checked it out and found a new crater 18 meters across. “What was surprising was how far the ejecta went,” Keller says. Debris had been tossed 35 kilometers — much farther than expected from a space rock estimated to be only about a meter wide.

Understanding what’s currently hitting the moon and the traces those objects leave is crucial to interpreting the history of impacts plastered across the lunar surface; similar impacts also affected Earth but most have been erased by weather and geologic forces. “The moon is our way of studying the history of the Earth since the creation of the Earth-moon system,” Petro says.

One of the seven instruments that LRO carries is a laser altimeter, a beam of light that scans and maps the surface in exquisite detail. “That’s been a game changer,” says Simone Marchi, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. “We can use the topography data to find old degraded craters that otherwise would not be easily detected in imagery.”

Detailed maps reveal craters on top of other craters, laying out a rough sequence of when things hit the moon. And astronauts have brought back samples from some of these terrains, allowing researchers to use radiogenic dating to figure out when craters formed. That in turn supplies a record of what was smacking into other planets and asteroids. “We have a deep understanding of collisions going back to the beginning of the solar system,” says Marchi. “That can only be done with the moon.”

Christopher Crockett is an Associate News Editor. He was formerly the astronomy writer from 2014 to 2017, and he has a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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