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NASA kick-starting lunar science

At the Lunar Science Institute in Silicon Valley, the space agency is conducting and funding the research that will help make it possible to bring man back to the moon.

MOFFETT FIELD, Calif.--If you're in the planning stages of sending people back to the moon, as NASA is, you'd better know as much as possible about it.

That's one of the reasons NASA launched, in late 2007, the Lunar Science Institute (LSI), an organization with an annual budget of $10 million for the study and research of the moon, as well as the role of supporting and inspiring new generations of lunar scientists.

According to Greg Schmidt, LSI's deputy director, it is a "virtual" institute with a staff of just eight or nine people at any given moment. LSI is focused on collecting and sharing Web data and communications, chiefly among the scientists doing research on behalf of the institute, and who work in teams around and outside the country that are competitively selected.

This robot, called K-10, is part of the Lunar Science Institute, and NASA's, efforts to research the conditions that lunar rovers will encounter on the moon. Here, it traverses the Arizona desert. NASA

While lunar science has been around for more than 40 years as a formal discipline, LSI is focusing on a different set of problems than the researchers were in the 1960s. Yet, the institute also benefits from the work done decades ago. "We have a tremendous amount of data that we can pull together to answer the questions our scientists have," Schmidt said.

LSI is built around studying three main areas. The first is looking at the lunar science of the moon itself: the hard rock geology or the moon; lunar minerology and researching the moon as a planetary object, Schmidt explained. The second is studying the science on the moon, science that involves human exploration. And the last is science from the moon, which Schmidt said means thinking of the moon as an observational platform.

To Schmidt, that is one of the most exciting scientific areas imaginable. And part of that involves a proposal from one of LSI's principle investigators, University of Colorado astrophysicist Jack Burns, who is interested in putting a radio telescope on the far side of the moon.

"The far side of the moon is the quietest radio area in the inner solar system, and would make a perfect place for such a telescope, a very long wave telescope," Schmidt said. "We can peer further into the universe's history than with anything else if we had such a telescope. And I'm very confident that there's at least one Nobel Prize in this work. Totally confident."

He acknowledged that it will be years before any such telescope is put in place. After all, it will take a huge amount of research into the most efficient and cost-effective methods of undertaking such a project.

"I just can't wait until we do that," he said. "But, man, what an interesting question for humanity to be able to answer something like that."

Encouraging the next generation
One problem facing the lunar science community, Schmidt argued, is that the scientists who have been prominent in the field are aging. And that means that in order to keep the field fresh and growing, new blood has to be brought in.

With that in mind, another part of LSI's mission is to help find and encourage young people to join the field. LSI hosts an annual lunar science conference, timed to the anniversary of Apollo 11's landing on the moon, and it happens that this summer's edition of the conference will go on just as we reach the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's pioneering July 1969 trip to the moon.

Last year, he said, one of the best parts of the conference was seeing the innovative ideas that current lunar science graduate students are coming up with and nurturing those students and their ideas.

And while LSI is primarily a NASA organization, it couldn't achieve its goals without partnerships with research teams in many other countries. Among them are teams that are deeply involved with lunar research in India, China, and Japan, as well as England, where there are 14 different different academic and industry members, Schmidt said.

"We're getting the best lunar science from the UK as part of the Lunar Science Institute," he added. "And they have an equal seat at the table as our principal investigators."

At next month's LSI conference, meanwhile, the researchers will finally get a chance to see the first data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, as well as from the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), which NASA plans to launch next week.

"Both of those together are just incredibly exciting, so...we're hoping to get the first mission results from LRO," he said. "We won't see a lot yet, but there is a lot of data that is going to be collected, in multiple wavelengths with LRO...What we're expecting to see in July are the first images from the LRO camera. And so, that I think is exciting in itself. These are going to be the highest-resolution images that have been taken since the Apollo era."

Schmidt explained that one of the most exciting elements of this project is that the lunar researchers have a chance, for the first, time, to compare high-res images taken today by the LRO to the images taken more than 40 years ago by the Lunar Orbiter, and which have recently been reconstructed at NASA.

"Our idea is taking those (older images) and comparing those to the LRO pictures that are going to be taken and seeing what we find that has changed," Schmidt said. "And we expect to find quite a lot. The moon, it's not a static body. I like to think about it as our cosmic companion for 4 billion years. And so, it is what we think of as a witness plate for what has happened in the Earth's neighborhood. It records not just the early bombardment that happened in the Earth's system, but also the bombardment that's happening now."

With its $10 million annual budget, LSI is giving grants to teams throughout the United States and in other countries that are doing the next rounds of lunar research. And to Schmidt, that is crucial as the world stands ready for the next stage of lunar exploration. Within years, it is expected that we'll be visiting the moon again, and now is the time, he clearly believes, to encourage the kind of research that will best prepare us for those visits.

"I can still remember when Apollo 11 landed, and I can still feel those emotions," he said. "We want to bring (the moon) within our sphere and what (LSI is) about is bringing it within our scientific sphere...It's just really important for us to do this right now, and to bring in a new generation to do it."

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