Restructuring NASA Lunar Science

Resources are not infinite, and the 2013 administrative budget will call for a significant cut to planetary sciences. This is causing a stir (to put it mildly) in the planetary community and has left many organizations scrambling for a plan. For example, the Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG) presented their final report this week, summarized here by Casey Dreier. Essentially, the proposed cuts severely limits the potential of future Mars missions, and once again Mars sample return is at least a decade away. You can read Casey’s post for the latest on the Mars program, but it’s a similar story across the board and has been for many years. Visit the Planetary Society for the latest on how the community is responding and how you can help. NASA calls for promising returns but winds up in trouble either by underfunding programs (see: the Constellation program) or allowing budgetary overruns at the detriment to other programs. Many missions are pulled off within their proposed budgets (like the Moon’s GRAIL mission and the Juno probe), but overruns are often joked about as being standard operating procedure.

Despite the challenges, we keep reaching out beyond low earth orbit. “50 Years of Space Exploration” via National Geographic (image linked to source).

As the momentum of the Apollo missions began to wane in the eighties, the lunar community also started to shrink. Papers published from the Proceedings of the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) saw fewer lunar papers as the Apollo-era scientists started to leave the field – and of course at the same time other areas of planetary science were growing. Funding for lunar research lessened and many researchers followed the money to Mars (and elsewhere). In some years, the week-long LPSC would host only a couple lunar sessions (of 35+ total sessions). The most recent LPSC had 6 lunar-specific sessions, and of course there is significant overlap with broader session topics like Impact Craters and Airless Bodies. In addition, right now several satellites are further characterizing our nearest neighbor and keeping the Moon in the science spotlight.

Facilitating the Moon’s resurgence is the NASA Lunar Science Institute (NLSI), a virtual institution and primary hub of lunar research. Established in March 2008, NLSI is comprised of a small home base at NASA Ames and several US teams and international partners. They host the annual Lunar Science Forum at NASA Ames (the 5th annual NLSI Lunar Science Forum was recently held in July). Each year the Forum is bigger and better-attended, packed with three full days of lunar science. The institute has been key in rebuilding and strengthening ties in the lunar community, but that seems set to change.

NASA recently put out a call for comments on soon-to-be-released Cooperative Announcement NNH12ZDA013J (CAN). The call for comments are to deal with high-level features of a proposed virtual institute to be jointly supported by NASA Science Mission Directorate (SMD) and Human Exploration and Operation Missions Directorate (HEOMD).  A selection from the Addendum about the scope of the CAN:

The research scope for the planned CAN will be in the fields of lunar, NEA and Martian moons sciences, with preference given to topics that relate to the joint interests of both planetary science and human exploration.

This new Institute will replace the NLSI and expand its role to include near earth asteroids (NEAs) and Martian moons (Phobos and Deimos). There are a number of current organizations I assume will be part of or partnered with the new Institute, as their goals overlap. This includes the MPPG as mentioned above, the Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG), the Lunar Exploration and Analysis Group (LEAG), and the Center for Lunar Science and Exploration (CLSE), the Next Generation Lunar Scientists and Engineers (NGLSE) group, and the Lunar Graduate Conference (LunGradCon). While the MPPG, SBAG and LEAG are independent planning groups which I think will remain intact, I am not as certain about the effects this new Institute will have on the CLSE, NGLSE and LunGradCon. Holy crap that is a lot of acronyms.

NASA loves acronyms. They have a whole search engine devoted to searching through 14198 acronyms, which does not include many mission and organization names (click image for page).

The CLSE is also a primarily virtual institute (I think), but is organized by the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) and the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, TX. The CLSE states they state they are an “integral part” of NLSI, so perhaps CLSE will become the sole lunar-specific virtual institute.

NGLSE I believe has independent funding from but arose in partnership with NLSI. There is always a one-day NGLSE workshop held the day prior to the start of the NLSI Lunar Science Forum. Noah Petro, part of the NGLSE executive committee, has a very broad definition of “next-gen” which encompasses anyone who entered the lunar field post-Apollo.

LunGradCon is held the weekend before the NLSI Lunar Science Forum (typically a one-day conference on Sunday), and is run by graduate students for graduate students (and some post-docs). As a participant and member of the organizing committee, I am totally unbiased when I say it is a great opportunity to network with those new to the field of lunar research and see what the community is working on. The LunGradCon organizing committee will have to figure out (with input from other graduate students) how to adapt to this new community.

There are a couple of other points in the CAN that are worth mentioning. I wrote above that the new Institute will expand the role of NLSI, but not that it will expand its size. During the recent Forum there was much discussion about the future of NLSI, and whether there would be future Lunar Science Forums. The diplomatic answer from Greg Schmidt was that there would definitely be another Forum at NASA Ames, but he never specified Lunar Forum. What I see happening is a defocusing of the Institute that mirrors the defocusing of NASAs exploration strategy from Moon First to Flexible Path. I started this article with discussion of funding because I think the current status of NASA’s budget is a large player in why this change is occurring. In regards to the research scope of the Institute, the addendum is not very exclusive:

Additionally, while the topics of the planned CAN focus on potential destinations for human exploration (the Moon, NEAs, Phobos and Deimos), these topics can sometimes best be considered within the broader context of comparative planetology. Therefore, innovative proposals that include comparisons with main belt asteroids, comets, Mercury, Venus and Mars would be appropriate. Similarly, studies of telerobotic operational sites and associated research potential, including Earth-Moon Lagrange Points and the moons of Mars, may also be appropriate as part of a larger scientific effort.

There is no foreseeable future where Venus, Mercury, or comets will be targets of human exploration, but their inclusion leaves the door open to further defocusing of the Institute. In addition, Mars is unique and already has its own NASA funded program and plan for human and robotic exploration. Large sample return from Mars and the Moon are feasible if funded, and the success of Hayabusa showed we can actually get something from asteroids. OSIRIS-REx will hopefully continue that trend (with a potential return next decade).

This CAN is asking for comments on the “high-level operations” of the proposed Institute, so I believe it is an inevitability that NLSI will be replaced. Note that the interpretations and opinions I’ve talked about are my own, and both them and the CAN are subject to change. I am concerned about the connections the lunar community has built in the past few years, and am worried it will once again start to fade. Worried, but not closed to the idea of this new Institute. There is much potential here, and I do see value in collaboration between groups studying these airless bodies. However, I attend both the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference and the NLSI Lunar Science Forum, and I have benefited greatly from both. LPSC is a huge, week-long conference with four simultaneous sessions going on throughout the day, making it impossible to see everything. The Forum is a much more intimate setting with my immediate peers in the lunar community, and I can see that being lost in the incorporation of new solar system bodies.

Sampling Gruithuisen

The following is an abstract I wrote for – but never submitted to – the 2011 micro-symposium on The Importance of Solar System Sample Return Missions to the Future of Planetary Science. Because of time constraints I had to limit myself to a single presentation on how and why we sample crater ejecta (PDF of that abstract here).

Introduction:  The case for planetary differentiation has been well established for inner Solar System planets. Samples from meteoritic material and robotic and manned missions have contributed to current models of planetary evolution. A key early finding of the Apollo missions was evidence for a lunar magma ocean (LMO) and the early differentiation of terrestrial planets [1, 2]. This model was later applied to other rocky planets such as the Earth, Mars, and Venus.

Silicic volcanism represents a compositional end-member of planetary differentiation. As late-stage products, these evolved magmas may be used to place constraints on mantle sources and processes. Silicic magma in sufficient quantities may also play a role in early planetary mantle dynamics, magmatism and crustal evolution.

Non-terrestrial silicic volcanism is potentially identified on Venus (e.g., Pancake Volcanoes) and the Moon (e.g., Gruithuisen Domes) [3, 4]. Of these locations, the Moon is both uniquely preserved and accessible to robotic and manned missions. The Gruithuisen Domes were a Constellation region of interest, and much work has been done to characterize the area.

Samples to determine the extent and range of products of differentiation are among the highest lunar science priorities [5, 6]. Silicic volcanic terranes are rare in the current lunar sample collection. Those that have been identified are of uncertain provenance [4]. Origins as the products of silica-liquid immiscibility or basaltic underplating have been proposed for non-mare domes, but it is unclear whether they are volumetrically minor late stage residual melt or form large intrusive (and extrusive) bodies [7, 8].

Gruithuisen Dome region

Image and caption from [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University]: “All three of the Gruithuisen domes and the surrounding terrain are shown in WAC frame M117752970. Image width is 64 km and illumination is from the left.” Click the photo to visit the post on the LROC website.

Gruithuisen Domes:  Located on the northeast margin of Oceanus Procellarum, the Gruithuisen Domes area contains three dome structures: Gruithuisen Delta (27 km diameter), Gruithuisen Gamma (19 km), and Gruithuisen Northwest (7.5 km) [4]. As nearside non-mare volcanic features, they represent an accessible and valuable scientific site. Spectral observations indicate the domes are low in iron and titanium compared to mare and are also enriched in thorium (~20-40 ppm), similar in nature to rhyolite domes on Earth [7,9]. Emplacement and rheology models also indicate similarities with rhyolite [10]. Elevation profiles of central summit craters are consistent with non-impact origin [6].

The Gruithuisen Domes are located in a geologically complex region proximal to highland and mare units. On the basis of crater counts and geologic mapping, the timing of dome emplacement has been calculated as 3.85-3.72 Ga (Late Imbrian), earlier than the ≤3.55 Ga surrounding mare units [7, 11]. A significant contribution of sample return would be the establishment of an absolute age for these units and the association with the surrounding mare and underlying highlands. [Click here to visit the featured post on the Gruithuisen Domes at the LROC website.]

Sample Missions:  Scientific potential is significant for a stationary lander, and only increases if mobile rovers and manned missions are also considered.

Automated Sample Return.  There are several potentially key areas of focus for a sample return mission from the Gruithuisen Domes. The summits of larger domes are plateaus large enough to target for automated landing. Targeting the plateaus may avoid issues associated with landing on mare or highland terrane. Flank slopes (11-18 degrees [6]) may present problems for a lander, but are manageable by rover. A single sample return from the Gruithuisen Domes would likely yield rock types currently lacking in the lunar sample collection.

Manned Sample Return.  Adding a human element enhances the diversity and quality of collected samples. Mobile missions are currently restricted to a 10km radius around the lunar module on slopes of less than 25 degrees. Within these architectural constraints, a single mission could fully explore one dome or sample the flanks of two domes and the surrounding mare.


  1. J. A. Wood et al. (1970) Lunar anorthosites and a geophysical model of the Moon. Proceedings of the 11th Lunar Science Conference, 965-988.
  2. P. H. Warren (1985) The magma ocean concept and lunar evolution. Annual Reviews of Earth & Planetary Science 13, 201-240.
  3. J. H. Fink et al. (1993) Shapes of Venusian “pancake’ domes imply episodic emplacement and silicic composition. Geophysical Research Letters 20, 261-264.
  4. J. W. Head and T. B. McCord (1978) Imbrian-Age Highland Volcanism on the Moon: The Gruithuisen and Mairan Domes. Science 199, 1433-1436.
  5. NRC (2007) The Scientific Context for Exploration of the Moon, 107p.
  6. S. E. Braden et al. (2010) Morphology of Gruithuisen and Hortensius Domes: Mare vs nonmare volcanism (PDF). Lunar and Planetary Science Conference XXXXI, #2677.
  7. S. D. Chevrel et al. (1999) Gruithuisen domes region: A candidate for an extended nonmare volcanism unit on the Moon. Journal of Geophysical Research 104, 16515-16529.
  8. S. E. Braden et al. (2007) Unexplored Areas of the Moon: Nonmare Domes. Planetary Science Decadal Survey, 2013-2022.
  9. J. J. Hagerty et al. (2006) Refined thorium abundances for lunar red spots: Implications for evolved, nonmare volcanism on the Moon. Journal of Geophysical Research 111, E06002.
  10. L. Wilson and J. W. Head (2003) Deep generation of magmatic gas on the Moon and implications for pyroclastic eruptions. Journal of Geophysical Research 108, 5012.
  11. R. Wagner et al. (2002) Stratigraphic sequence and ages of volcanic units in the Gruithuisen region of the Moon. Journal of Geophysical Research 107(E11), 5104.

Flippin’ Rocks

click to view Flickr group

Thanks to this post by Rebecca in the Woods, I found out that today is International Rock Flipping Day! The purpose of IRFD from the main post at Wanderin’ Weeta:

It’s a day set aside to explore a too-often forgotten part of our world, one we walk past every day, and rarely are aware of; our nearest neighbours, the vibrant life under our feet.

I needed to take a walk, so I grabbed my phone and headed out with a friend to circle St. Mary’s Lake on the Notre Dame campus. Unfortunately the college landscapers apparently decided against leaving any rocks of size lying about for passerby’s to trip on. Instead we headed home and I had to settle for some concrete rip-rap near an apartment complex.

rock unflipped

The “rock” in its natural state

It became unusually blurry and overexposed when flipped (a defense mechanism?)

rock flipped

The “rock”, flipped

Getting closer, there was a slug that didn’t seem to perturbed to being exposed. His buddy the worm schlooped underground when I got too close:

snail and worm

Mr. Snail and The Worm hanging out

And bonus creature, clinging to the underside of the “rock” was this guy:


Spider chilling out

I placed the rock back in place, being careful not to crush the slug. Happy International Rock Flipping Day!