12 March 2008

Networking the Moon

Posted by Ryan Anderson

This afternoon I was listening to Mars talks about geochemistry, but I reached saturation. I had to go hear about somewhere else in the solar system. So, I wandered in a stupor over to the session on lunar exploration. It turns out I had good timing: I got there just in time to hear none other than Alan Stern, associate administrator of NASA’s science mission directorate, give a talk about the International Lunar Network.

The gist of his presentation was this: a lot of countries are interested in sending missions to the moon in the next couple decades. If we’re all going there, we might as well coordinate so we can maximize the science. He pointed out that a lot of missions to the moon have extra room to carry “piggyback” missions on the same rocket, which means that
you can essentially send a big mission and a smaller one every launch. For example the GRAIL mission will carry a small orbiter called LADEE (I forget what the acronym stands for…), which will measure the state of the moon’s “atmosphere”. The idea is: once a bunch of rockets are landing on the moon, there will be tons of rocket exhaust floating around which will muck up detection of the actual (extremely tenuous) atmosphere. Cool!

So, back to the networks. Stern’s talk basically proposed that, when countries send landers to the moon, either on their own rockets, or as piggybacks on other mission, they cooperate to have a standard “core” set of instruments. That way you can do unique science, like setting up a earthquake detectors in multiple places, or radiation detectors, instruments to measure the amount of heat coming from the ground, etc. These sorts of measurements are much more powerful if you can record the same sorts of data at multiple locations at once.

Stern said that NASA has requested money to carry out science investigations, and will pledge to send two landers to serve as “hubs” for the proposed network of landers. He also said that there had been talk of NASA providing a communications satellite that all nations in the International Lander Network could use to relay data back to earth, even from the far side of the moon.

I think this is a great idea , both for the science potential, and the international cooperation involved. Stern said that the first meeting of international partners on the network would be tomorrow, and they had dates in mind for deciding what the “core” instruments would be, and for nations to sign up to be a part of the network. It sounds like this is well on its way, and I’ll be watching for news as it changes from an idea to actual missions.