Throughout September as we approach International Observe the Moon Day, I will do a series of posts about our nearest celestial neighbour.
The Moon has inspired and intrigued humans since the earliest times. Every ancient culture has multiple myths and stories relating to its creation.
But where did the Moon come from? The origin of the Moon is a fundamental question in the study of the Solar System.
From when Galileo first turned his telescope to make the first ‘close up’ observations of the Moon through to the Apollo 12 mission we still have an incomplete understanding of its origins.
Between 1969 and 1972, NASA astronauts returned 382 kilograms of lunar soil and rocks samples to Earth.
The Soviet Union, using three robotic sample missions in the period 1970-1976, returned about 300 grams of material to Earth.
These samples are still being studies and analysed today in laboratories around the world. They are important in continuing to provide insights as how the Moon originally formed.
There are multiple hypotheses that have attempted to explain how the Moon came to be. We shall look at some as we continue this series of posts.
Unfortunately, even though, the Apollo and Luna samples totally improved scientists understanding of the Moon’s origins. These rock samples were collected from largely similar geological areas and consequently are not representative of the entire Moon.
To gain a better understanding of the origin and history of the Earth-Moon system, samples are needed from new and varied location. These should also include samples of rocks from beneath the Lunar surface.
Based on remote observations by radars onboard ISRO’s Chandrayaan 1 orbiter and NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, scientists estimate the Moon’s poles to contain more than 600 billion kg of water ice. This would be enough to fill at least 240,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
We also need to assess the nature of water at the lunar poles to understand how it got there and how it is related to Earth’s water.
It is agreed that the water ice at the Moon’s poles could be utilised to power future lunar habitats. Using solar power generated by the habitats, the water ice could also be split into hydrogen and oxygen for use as rocket fuel.
However before lunar habitats can be established technologies are needed that enable the exploration of the Moon’s poles. This would include an the ability to land on and navigate rough, mountainous terrain on the lunar poles. The lander would also seem to be able to function in theses very cold and inhospitable water-hosting regions. The poles are areas without access to sunlight or Earth communication.
This is where NASA’s next lunar mission, VIPER would fit in. Planned for launch in 2023, NASA’s VIPER will explore permanently dark craters on the Moon’s poles to make high-resolution maps of water ice and probe the quality and suitability of the water ice for future use.