A particular volcanic region of the moon never before explored by humans or robots holds the clues to lunar history, including if the moon once had a water interior.
To get to the bottom of this mysterious area known as the Gruithuisen Domes, NASA is sending a robotic mission there to traverse the volcanic formation for answers.
University of Central Florida planetary scientists Kerri Donaldson Hanna will lead the NASA science mission known as Lunar Vulkan Imaging and Spectroscopy Explorer or Lunar-VISE, using a suite of science instruments to explore the summit of the volcanic domes on a lander and rover.
Earth-based telescopes and spacecraft observations have shown that the domes are composed of materials different from the mare or highlands. When you look up at the moon, the mare regions are dark, and the highlands are lighter.
Donaldson Hanna says the domes were created with sticky, slow-moving lava, which is strange because it's different from other vast volcanic plains that once flowed over the moon.
When scientists first discovered the Gruithuisen Domes, it was a surprise and created new theories about the moon.
"It implies that maybe there was water on the interior of the moon that allowed the magma to change in composition, to have this unique and distinct composition from the rest of the volcanic plains," Donaldson Hanna explains.
The other theory is that the interior of the moon was hotter for a longer period of time, allowing the magma to boil for longer.
"Why that's cool or unique is that it tells us more about the interior of the moon than we ever thought," Donaldson Hanna said.
Previous theories did not suspect water in the moon's interior, but these features hint that water existed to help create this special area of volcanism.
Donaldson Hanna said understanding these mysterious features will help us understand volcanism on Earth, the moon and throughout the solar system.
"These volcanic domes that we're going to land at, we believe they have really unique regolith properties of them," Donaldson Hanna said, referring to the moon soil.
UCF planetary scientist Adrienne Dove is deputy principal investigator on Lunar-VISA. As an expert on space dust, she will be looking at how the moon's dirt and dust near the domes react to the landing and the rover's wheels.
"As we land, we’ll be able to see how dust is disturbed and then watch how the region changes over time," Dove said in a UCF news release. "We’ll be able to observe how the rover modifies the surface as it travels across the domes to conduct its work."
Donaldson Hanna said these observations help engineers and scientists better understand how diverse, the regolith properties are across the moon.
UCF has a research facility called the Exolith Lab that creates simulated lunar and Mars soil. This has already and will continue to be helpful for the upcoming mission.
Lunar-VISE consists of five science instruments divided between the lander and rover. Two cameras on the lander built by Ball Aerospace will take images of the landing and watch the rover explore the domes. Ball Aerospace is also building two cameras for the rover.
The rover has three instruments, two cameras and a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer built by Arizona State University. The spectrometer will measure the lunar surface and identify elements that could help detect possible water.
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When NASA announced the domes were a priority science target for the moon, the UCF team knew it was up for the task.
"We are pretty excited because we knew that our instrument suite was really ideal for tackling the really interesting science questions of the Gruithuisen Domes," Donaldson Hanna said.
NASA will work with the Lunar-VISE team to set up requirements for the lander and rover. Then NASA will put out a request for proposals for private companies to build the robots. The agency is targeting 2026 for launch, a warp-speed timeline for a planetary science mission to go from selection to landing on another world in four years.
To meet this ambitious timeframe, all instruments on Lunar-VISE are currently in operation on other missions or have flown on past missions.
"Essentially, all of our instruments have heritage," Donaldson Hanna said. "That was one of our strategies was to propose with heritage instruments since this is such a short turnaround time."
Depending on which company builds the robots, the mission could be run out of the University of Colorado Boulder, which is providing mission and data operations support, or at mission control elsewhere. Some companies, like Astrobotic in Pittsburg and Intuitive Machines in Houston, have built mission control centers for their moon landers and rovers.
NASA plans to return humans to the moon under the Artemis program by 2025. In the next year, under NASA's Commercial Lunar Services Payload program, private companies will begin sending robotic missions to the moon.