The Moon Is Getting Slammed Way More Than We Thought

A new study of the current rate of meteoroid impacts on the Moon suggests that those iconic astronaut boot prints we thought would be around for 2 million years may instead disappear after something like 80,000!

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Celebrate International Observe the Moon Night on Saturday, Oct. 8 2016!

A full moon captured July 18, 2008. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

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This Saturday, October 8, 2016, is International Observe the Moon Night (InOMN), an annual worldwide public event that encourages observation, appreciation, and understanding of our Moon and its connection to NASA planetary science and exploration. InOMN is sponsored by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI), and the Lunar and Planetary Institute.

Everyone on Earth is invited to join the celebration by hosting or attending an InOMN event — and uniting on one day each year to look at and learn about the Moon together. We encourage you to go to InOMN events near you, such as at your local planetariums or museums, or to go out and observe the moon yourself! You can find events near you at the InOMN site. You can also follow the InOMN Twitter feed to see what everyone is doing to celebrate!

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Our friends over at CosmoQuest are proud to be partners in this celebration of Earth’s natural satellite. There you can “Observe the Moon” all year long by taking part in lunar-themed activities, such as our Moon Mappers citizen science program, where you’ll get to look at some of the most detailed images taken by the LRO, and help our scientists study the moon and it’s surface. This excellent program is available free of charge, no matter the weather, time of day or your location – you get the best views of the Moon ever!

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Take some photos of your activities, whether outdoors observing or indoors mapping craters, and share them online at the CosmoQuest Twitter and Facebook feeds using the hashtag #observethemoon, and CosmoQuest will repost their favorites!

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Here are just a few of the media celebrations that have already been posted for InOMN!

One of CosmoQuest’s partners, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, has a great document here celebrating recent lunar discoveries.

The Moon and More” is a music video starring musicians Javier Colon (Season 1 winner of NBC’s “The Voice”), and Matt Cusson in collaboration with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission.
Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/David Ladd, producer

[embed]https://youtu.be/PPB1ZHb9FKA[/embed]

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GRAIL Data Points To Possible Lava Tubes On The Moon

Map showing variations in the lunar gravity field, as measured by NASA's Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) . Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MIT/GSFC

For years, scientists have been hunting for the stable lava tubes that are believed to exist on the Moon. A remnant from the Moon’s past, when it was still volcanically active, these underground channels could very well be an ideal location for lunar colonies someday. Not only would their thick roofs provide naturally shielding from solar radiation, meteoric impacts, and extremes in temperature. They could also be pressurized to create a breathable environment.

But until now, evidence of their existence has been inferred from surface features such as sinuous rilles – channel-like depressions that run along the surface that indicate the presence of subterranean lava flows – and holes in the surface (aka. “skylights”). However, recent evidence presented at the 47th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in Texas indicates that one such stable lava tube could exist in the once-active region known as Marius Hills.

The presentation was led by Rohan Sood, a graduate research assistant from the department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Purdue University in Indiana. For some time now, Sood and his research colleagues have been examining data obtained from NASA’s twin Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission in order to get a better sense of what the Moon’s interior looks like.

Launched in 2011, the purpose of the GRAIL mission – which consists of two orbiters, Ebb and Flow, working in tandem – was to map the Moon’s gravity with extreme precision. Over time, the information it gathered has provided scientists with the opportunity to gain a better understanding of the Moon’s subsurface features, particularly the buried lava tubes that are believed to exist.

In 2009, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) Kaguya spacecraft (aka. Selene) confirmed the presence of a skylight in the Marius Hills region, which has since come to be known as the “Marius Hole”. In 2011, it was photographed in more detail by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which showed that it was approximately 65 meters wide and 80 meters deep. The fact that this hole sat between two rilles indicated that it was evidence that lava once flowed beneath the region.

Using the GRAIL gravity data that was collected at different altitudes, the Purdue team went about assessing the presence and extent of ancient lava tubes beneath the surface of Marius Hills. What they determined was rather interesting. As Sood told Universe Today via email:

“Thanks to NASA’s GRAIL mission, we now have derived the lunar gravity field to an unprecedented resolution and accuracy. The data allows us to dig below the lunar surface, with our objective being to recognize signatures that may correspond to those of empty lava tubes.”

To assess the possibility of lava tubes, Sood and his team relied on a two-tiered strategy of gradiometry and cross-correlationon specific regions. Whereas gradiometry calculates the gravitational potential from a spherical harmonics data set, cross-correlation utilizes the individual track data based on the relative acceleration between the two spacecraft as they move along their respective orbits.

Much like Earth, the moon’s gravitational field is affected by masses below the surface. “Any gravitational field is affected by the density of material,” said Sood. “If you are flying the spacecraft over a block of dense material, it will experience an increase in gravitational pull in contrary to flying over a lava tube void, in which case there will be a decrease in gravitational attraction experienced by the spacecraft.”

Where the Marius Hole is located, the team spotted a gravitational signature that was indicative of a subsurface cavity. But that was not all. Distributed across the Moon’s near side, Sood and his colleagues also noted that the GRAIL data indicated at least ten signatures that could resemble lava tubes. All are located near the dark areas left by ancient volcanic seas, with some measuring more than 100 km long and several kilometers wide.

Naturally, there are some doubts as to whether or not the readings are indicative of actual lava tubes. As the team indicated in their paper – “Detection of Buried Empty Lunar Lava Tubes Using Grail Gravity Data“, which contains the findings they presented at the 47th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference – the structures they were looking for were similar or smaller in scale than the resolution of the gravity data.

As a result, it was difficult to determine whether or not the signals they spotted were in fact a sign of an underground recess, or a numerical artifact in the data. Because of this, proving the existence of stable, subsurface lava tubes will require a next-generation mission, one that has instruments which will be able to penetrate the lunar surface and confirm the presence of recesses.

“[W]e have to remember that gravity is non-unique,” Sood added, “which means, in order to support our findings and to add to our ongoing efforts, our team is considering a ground penetrating radar that will probe the lunar subsurface from orbit. The goal of the radar would be to confirm the presence of the potential lava tube candidates that we have detected so far, and in addition, look for smaller lava tubes that were beyond the resolution of GRAIL gravity data.”

One possibility is a concept Sood and his colleagues have proposed themselves – the Lunar Advanced Radar Orbiter For Subsurface Sounding (LAROSS) mission. Designed to build upon the success of the GRAIL mission, the concept calls for a spacecraft equipped with ground-penetrating radar to conduct a sounding mission that would potentially confirm both the presence and size of the Moon’s buried empty lava tubes.

This is not the first time that researchers from Purdue have presented a case for stable lunar lava tubes at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. Last year, at the 46th annual conference, a research team from the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (which included Sood) used data similarly provided by the GRAIL mission to determine that some lunar lava tubes could measure up to 1 km in width.

These latest findings, which not only produced more evidence of such subsurface spaces, but indicated that they may be even larger than previously expected, is good news for advocates of lunar settlement. It is also worth noting that since it began surveying the moon, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has imaged over 200 pits that show signs of being skylights.

Each of these holes could lead to subsurface voids or caverns, which range in diameter from about 16 feet (5 meters) to more than 2,950 feet (900 m). Assuming that just a fraction of these lead to underground tubes that are large enough to house an entire Earth city, there would be no shortage of possible settlement sites if and when it comes time to colonize the Moon.

After all, one of the biggest challenges in settling on a body where there is no atmosphere to speak of is creating a sturdy and airtight protective shelter. Another major challenge is shielding the occupants of these and other shelters from incoming cosmic rays and solar radiation since their is no ozone layer to filter them out.

Where better than in an underground tunnel that will not only shield inhabitants from harmful radiation, meteoric impacts, and extremes in temperature, but also has immensely thick walls to keep the air in? In all likelihood, if and when there is such a thing as “Lunies”, they will dwell in elongated caverns beneath the Moon’s surface.

Further Reading: Universities Space Research Assocation

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NASA Receives Significant Budget Boost for Fiscal Year 2016

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration.   Credit: NASA/MSFC

NASA has just received a significant boost in the agency’s current budget after both chambers of Congress passed the $1.1 Trillion 2016 omnibus spending bill this morning, Friday, Dec. 18, which funds the US government through the remainder of Fiscal Year 2016.

As part of the omnibus bill, NASA’s approved budget amounts to nearly $19.3 Billion – an outstandingly magnificent result and a remarkable turnaround to some long awaited good news from the decidedly negative outlook earlier this year.

This budget represents an increase of some $750 million above the Obama Administration’s proposed NASA budget allocation of $18.5 Billion for Fiscal Year 2016, and an increase of more than $1.2 Billion over the enacted budget for FY 2015.

Space enthusiasts worldwide should rejoice at this tremendously positive budget news for NASA – which enables the agency to move forward with its core agenda of human spaceflight, robotic exploration, and science and technology research and development programs.

The Federal spending bill first passed the House by an overwhelming vote of 316 to 113. It then moved to the Senate where it passed easily by a vote of 65 to 33, in one of the final acts of Congress this year before they adjourn for the Christmas holiday season. President Obama announced he will sign the bill.

After a contentious year of high states political brinkmanship that could easily have ended in another government shutdown this week, the US Congress and the Obama White House did the nearly unimaginable and decided to strike a compromise and pass the omnibus spending bill for the 2016 Fiscal Year that funds the government and NASA for the remainder of this year’s budget season through September 2015.

Committees in both chambers passed bills earlier this year with much less funding for NASA and far different space exploration priorities compared to President Obama. The outlook for the entire Federal budget changed mightily in the past two months under the new House speaker, Republican Paul Ryan who replaced outgoing Speaker John Boehner.

Under the newly passed Fiscal Year 2016 NASA Budget, virtually all of the agency’s programs benefit with either full or added funding.

The SLS, Orion, Commercial Crew and Planetary Sciences among others are all big beneficiaries of the omnibus budget compromise.

Sending humans to Mars by the 2030s is NASA’s agency-wide goal as announced by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

To accomplish the ‘Journey to Mars’ initiative, NASA is developing the mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket and the state of the art Orion deep space crew capsule.

The SLS is one of the bigggest winners. SLS will receive $2 Billion in the FY 2016 budget, compared to an Obama Administration request of only $1.36 billion that was actually a cut from the prior year. This new total represents a nearly 50% increase and is also above earlier House and Senate bills.

The SLS will be the most powerful rocket the world has ever seen starting with its first liftoff. It will propel our astronauts on journey’s further into space than ever before.

Blastoff of the first SLS heavy lift booster (SLS-1) carrying an unmanned test version of NASA’s Orion crew capsule is targeted for no later than November 2018.

The maiden SLS test flight with the uncrewed Orion is called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) and will launch from Launch Complex 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

The bill also directs NASA to use $85 million of the SLS funding to develop a new, enhanced cryogenic upper stage to replace the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (from the Delta IV rocket) that currently will be utilized on SLS-1.

NASA needs the enhanced upper stage to carry out future manned missions with Orion to deep space destinations like the Moon, Asteroids and Mars.

NASA had been marching towards an August 2021 liftoff for the maiden crewed Orion on a test flight dubbed Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2). But in August, the agency announced that EM-2 could slip two years from 2021 to 2023 due to a variety of budget and technical issues.

So the 2016 budget plus up could aid NASA significantly in trying to maintain the still officially targeted 2021 launch date.

NASA’s other human spaceflight pillar, namely the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) to develop a pair of human rated ‘space taxis’ to transport our astronauts to the low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS) is also a big beneficiary.

The goal of CCP is to end the US sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz manned capsule at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars and to restore the US Human spaceflight capability to launch our astronauts on American rockets from American soil.

For the first time in its five year history, CCP will receive the full funding requested by the Obama Administration – in the amount of $1.244 Billion. Whereas earlier markups by both the House and Senate had cut CCP funding to $1 Billion or below.

Under CCP awards announced by Bolden in September 2014, NASA had contracted Boeing to develop the CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX to develop the Crew Dragon.

Bolden had made it completely clear to Congress that any reduced funding would have forced NASA into slowing the program with another substantial delay in first launch now targeted for 2017, by renegotiating the CCP contracts with both Boeing and SpaceX and delaying completion of the required milestones.

“It would upend the investments we need to execute contracts with Boeing and SpaceX to return the launches of American astronauts to American soil and to do it by 2017,” wrote Bolden in his NASA blog.

NASA’a Planetary Sciences Division also gets a much earned and much needed big budget boost. The omnibus bill affords $1.631 billion for Planetary exploration. This amounts to an increase of some $270 million above the Obama administration’s request – which has repeatedly cut of one of NASA’s crown jewels.

Congress has had the good sense to save the long lived and very scientifically productive Opportunity MER rover and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) missions from certain termination – due only to a ridiculous lack of money that was “zeroed out” by the White House.

The omnibus bill also appropriates $175 million for NASA planned mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa in the early 202os. It includes funding for both an orbiter and lander. Europa is a prime target in the search for life.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Earthrise Like You’ve Never Seen It Before

The Earth straddling the limb of the Moon, as seen from above Compton crater on the lunar farside, taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. The large tan area in the upper right of Earth is the Sahara desert, and just beyond is Saudia Arabia. The Atlantic and Pacific coasts of South America are visible to the left. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.

Nearly 47 years ago, the crew of Apollo 8 took an image of planet Earth from the Moon that has been called “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.” Called “Earthrise,” the picture represented the first time human eyes saw their homeworld come into view around another planetary body.

Now, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has captured stunning new high-definition views of Earth and the Moon from the spacecraft’s vantage point in lunar orbit.

This is a composite view, with Earth appearing to rise over the horizon of the lunar farside. The image is composed from a series of pictures taken on Oct. 12, 2015 when LRO was about 83 miles (134 kilometers) above the moon’s farside Compton crater.

Taking this image was actually a complicated task for the LRO team. Mark Robinson, the principal investigator for LROC camera explained:

First the spacecraft must be rolled to the side (in this case 67°), then the spacecraft slews with the direction of travel to maximize the width of the lunar horizon in the NAC (Narrow Angle Camera) image. All this takes place while LRO is traveling over 1,600 meters per second (faster than 3,580 mph) relative to the lunar surface below the spacecraft! As a result of these three motions and the fact that the Narrow Angle Camera is a line scanner the raw image geometry is distorted. Also, because the Moon and Earth are so far apart, the geometric correction is different for each body. Reconstruction of the Earth-Moon image is not a simple matter – and that is just to get the black and white image!

Here’s a video created by the LRO Mission Operations Center showing how they planned the maneuver with a specialized spacecraft slew planning software. The vertical red line indicates the NAC line scan:

In the image, the center of the Earth just off the coast of Liberia (at 4.04 degrees North, 12.44 degrees West). The large tan area in the upper right is the Sahara Desert, and just beyond is Saudi Arabia. The Atlantic and Pacific coasts of South America are visible to the left.

The Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) on LRO takes high resolution black-and-white images, while the lower resolution Wide Angle Camera (WAC) takes color images, so the two camera images are combined (with some special processing) to create the one high-rez image.

Robinson also explained how being in orbit provides a different view from what the Apollo astronauts saw (and hopefully what future lunar explorers will see) from the lunar surface.

“From the Earth, the daily moonrise and moonset are always inspiring moments,” Robinson said. “However, lunar astronauts will see something very different: viewed from the lunar surface, the Earth never rises or sets. Since the moon is tidally locked, Earth is always in the same spot above the horizon, varying only a small amount with the slight wobble of the moon. The Earth may not move across the ‘sky’, but the view is not static. Future astronauts will see the continents rotate in and out of view and the ever-changing pattern of clouds will always catch one’s eye, at least on the nearside. The Earth is never visible from the farside; imagine a sky with no Earth or moon – what will farside explorers think with no Earth overhead?”

“The image is simply stunning,” said Noah Petro, Deputy Project Scientist for LRO. “The image of the Earth evokes the famous ‘Blue Marble’ image taken by Astronaut Harrison Schmitt during Apollo 17, 43 years ago, which also showed Africa prominently in the picture.”

NASA’s first Earthrise image was taken with the Lunar Orbiter 1 spacecraft in 1966. Below is a restored version of the image from the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project. You can the original image and more info about that project here.

In 1968, the Apollo 8 crew of Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders conducted a live broadcast from lunar orbit, in which they showed pictures of the Earth and Moon as seen from their spacecraft. Lovell perhaps said it best: “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.”

Here is one of the images from Apollo 8:

For more information on how the LROC team created the image, see the LROC website.

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NASA Curiosity Rover Missing ‘Scientific Focus And Detail’ In Mars Mission: Review

NASA’s planetary senior review panel harshly criticized the scientific return of the Curiosity rover in a report released yesterday (Sept. 3), saying the mission lacks focus and the team is taking actions that show they think the $2.5-billion mission is “too big to fail.” While the review did recommend the mission receive more funding — […]

What Does The Apollo 11 Moon Landing Site Look Like Today?

Forty-five years ago yesterday, the Sea of Tranquility saw a brief flurry of activity when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin dared to disturb the ancient lunar dust. Now the site has lain quiet, untouched, for almost half a century. Are any traces of the astronauts still visible? The answer is yes! Look at the picture […]

What Does The Apollo 11 Moon Landing Site Look Like Today?

Forty-five years ago yesterday, the Sea of Tranquility saw a brief flurry of activity when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin dared to disturb the ancient lunar dust. Now the site has lain quiet, untouched, for almost half a century. Are any traces of the astronauts still visible? The answer is yes! Look at the picture […]