The long road to ALSEP data recovery

The human presence on the Moon did not end with Gene Cernan’s final footsteps, nor with Jack Schmitt’s final words before the Apollo 17 lunar module launched from the lunar surface on December 14th, 1972. The remnants of the six Apollo endeavors will, of course, remain on the lunar surface indefinitely as monuments of 20th Century space exploration. But for five years after Apollo 17, a human presence on the Moon was maintained through a collection of experiments at each landing site called the ALSEP program.

ALSEP lunar mass spec

Down-Sun picture of the Lunar Mass Spectrometer with the main hub and antenna in the background. (Image from the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal)

Over 5000 ARCSAV tapes were produced during the years of ALSEP data collection, and today most of these are missing

When the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) program was terminated on September 30th, 1977, it brought an end to 8 years of continuous data collection on a planetary body – a record that would stand (I believe) until Opportunity rolled past 3000 sols in 2012. And, much like Opportunity, ALSEP experiments long outlived their nominal one-year lifetimes. The ALSEP program relayed real-time data on seismicity (natural and astronaut-made), solar wind strength, ion flux, shallow surface heat flow and more to the distributed Manned Space Flight Network on Earth. Analog magnetic tapes (14-track range tapes) from the distributed network were collected at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) for further processing and re-recording. Range tapes made between November 1969 and February 1973 were to be permanently archived at Goddard Space Flight Center. Between 1973 and February 1976, a day’s worth of data from each site were stored onto separate magnetic tapes (7-track digital ARCSAV tapes) so range tapes could be recycled. Data processing was moved offsite (1976-1977) to the University of Texas, where the use of ARCSAV tapes were replaced by 9-track digital tapes (work tapes). And throughout this eight year period, numerous tapes were made for preliminary reports by PIs (PI tapes). Well over 5000 ARCSAV tapes were produced during the years of ALSEP data collection, and today most of these are missing.

SDS Sigma 7 tapes

In fact, if this tape rack represented the entirety of the ALSEP data collection, we would only have about three tapes (Image by fastlizard4 on Flickr)

The extended-mission life of ALSEP operations created some unanticipated issues for PIs. For example, the six passive seismic experiments recorded data 24-hours a day, enough to fill over one thousand range tapes per year for each site. The ever-growing volume of data tapes were increasingly difficult for PIs to work with, though this was abated somewhat by transferring to higher data-density tapes. The sharp decline in post-Apollo funding – NASA’s budget dropped by a third in the 1970’s – meant some PIs could not devote the hours necessary for data processing and maintenance. Although PIs were instructed to archive tapes with the Washington National Record Center (WNRC), the requirements were vague and poorly enforced and so only an estimated 50% of the PI data were archived. In some cases this was only a subset of processed, “scientifically important” data as selected by PI teams.

Records show something like 3270 ARCSAV tapes made between April 1973 to February 1976 were sent to WNRC. Records also show a massive withdrawal of analog tapes from WNRC, prompted by the tape shortage in 1980, which included ~2800 ARCSAV tapes as Goddard Space Flight Center staff searched high and low for reusable/recyclable tapes. Fortunately, the 7-track digital tapes were not their target (the Apollo 11 landing footage tapes were probably not as fortunate), but instead of returning them to WNRC the ARCSAV tapes were stored in the basement of GSFC. Many of these were later destroyed in a 1990 building flood, and the trail of surviving tapes goes cold after they were removed from the basement of GSFC during cleanup.

Modern computers could do so much more with the ALSEP tapes than was previously possible, if only the data were available. The potential was highlighted in the 1990’s when the University of Texas ’76-’77 tapes were reprocessed and made available on the National Space Science Data Center. But a concerted effort to find the missing tapes wouldn’t get off the ground until 2004, when the presidential mandate for space exploration sparked a resurgence in lunar research in terms of both interest and funds. With practically zero ground-truth characterization of the lunar surface (apart from returned samples and meteorites) and lunar atmosphere, the ALSEP program was a natural target for reevaluation. Suddenly there was a call for these tapes that were nowhere to be found. The NLSI Recovery of Missing Data Focus Group was formally convened in 2007 and is a multi-institutional, (mostly) volunteer-run effort led by some of the original ALSEP PIs.

ALSEP dust detector data tape

Apollo 12 dust detector PI tape of days 465-468 (Source: Prof. Brian J. O’Brien PI and SpectrumData)

It is through the efforts of the ALSEP focus group that most of what we know of the tapes has come to light. Every year at the Lunar & Planetary Science Forum (in March) and Lunar Science Forum (in July), the group has a side meeting where they share their successes and frustrations. And there have been successes. In 2010, ~450 ARCSAV tapes made between April and June of 1975 were recovered from WNRC. And at some point, a large quantity of ALSEP data was condensed onto microfiche and microfilm, and also backed up on paper. For LPSC this year, an abstract from the group announced the complete restoration of seven lunar data sets. Another eight data sets are in the final stages and will likely be completed by LPSC, with a promise of more to come. In short, many raw data tapes have been recovered…and also some processed data tapes, and reprocessed tapes of processed data tapes, and prints of raw and processed data…now what?

Hopefully “restoration” should hint at something more involved than slapping an ARCSAV tape in a reader and ripping it onto a hard drive like a CD. Well…OK, that is part of it. But unsurprisingly, such tape readers in working condition are increasingly rare, and at least some of the ARCSAV data recovery was outsourced to data recovery/conversion companies or citizens. Prof. Brian J. O’Brien (Australian government) was an original PI for the Early Apollo Surface Experiments Package (EASEP) and ALSEP Dust Detectors (Apollo 11, 12, 14, and 15) and the Charged Particle Lunar Environment experiment (Apollo 14). He maintained possession of a number of original tapes (including the one pictured above), and is working with SpectrumData to recover quality data.

And quality is the other main issue here. Tape quality degrades over time. Converting tape formats can introduce transcription errors. Processed data might be missing metadata on conversion programs, units, calibrations, random transcription errors, or whatever “corrections” the PI deemed necessary. Even in raw data tapes, anomalies occasionally occur because, after all, they came from the Moon.

It's all the way past those trees and everything.

It’s all the way past those trees and everything. (Photo by poikiloblastic)

Without relevant metadata (including telemetry to assess transmission quality), the tapes would be worse than useless because any product would rest on a flawed foundation. That remains a major obstacle to data restoration. Significant progress in terms of tapes acquired and metadata resolved has been via cooperation with PI teams and their universities, with one PI even lending an ALSEP experiment notebook to scan for use in calibrating a data set. Prior to archiving with the Planetary Data System, data sets undergo peer review. The ALSEP-recovered-data-related abstracts submitted to LPSC this year are a promising sign of the science return we can expect to see from these important datasets in the years to come.


Almost all of the details above are collected from focus group meetings at the NLSI Lunar Science Forum (2011 & 2012), as well as ALSEP Data Recovery Focus Group progress abstracts submitted to the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (2011 & 2013). My contribution to the focus group thus far has been to introduce myself at the beginning of said meetings.

ALSEP system and experiment reports are available from the LPI website.

Recovered EASEP and ALSEP data sets are archived in the Planetary Data System Geoscience Node.

Related: Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Program (LOIRP)

Smoosh the horizontal Nalgene

It was only a matter of time. At the end of the vertical Nalgene smoosh, there were hints of more to come as I had unearthed another Nalgene of the same make (and with fewer stickers).

deformed nalgenes

they never stood a chance.

We learned from the previous experiment that, in a test of vertical compression, the threaded top failed at ~700 lbs and the main body lasted to ~1400 lbs before buckling. What sort of force could a horizontally oriented Nalgene cylinder resist? Arches and…circular things are supposed to be strong, right? “John” thought it could hold up to at least 3,000 lbf. This round we recorded the time-resolved applied load as the machine compressed at a rate of 0.5 in/min. The photo sequence below shows the Nalgene over time.

nalgene compression sequence with plots

Nalgene compression at at selected times during the experiment, and corresponding pound-force being applied at that time. a) initial, b) after main body failure, c) continuing compression, and d) plastic on plastic contact. I obviously made the value labels tiny so as not to ruin the surprise.

Once again, the main body failed at 1400 lbf! The inner shadows visible in b and c are, I think, the same indentations visible in the first photo of this post. For stability, we placed the Nalgene on a metal plate with a small groove (just visible in b above). These cut into the bottle (see below) but I don’t think affected the structural integrity.

Two parallel groove indentations (arrows) where the bottom metal plate was notched for stability (visible in image (b) in the sequence above)

Two parallel groove indentations (arrows) where the bottom metal plate was notched for stability (visible in image (b) in the sequence above)

The bottle mouth, hanging over the edge of the plate, bowed out as well.

nalgene top side view

bowing out of the Nalgene mouth, which was not constrained by the plates. Space Lego man inside the bottle for scale.

After a certain amount of flattening and spreading-out, part of the bottle was hanging over the edge of the plate. Thus one side (left in photo below) was more compressed than the other (right), resulting in a wedge shape. You can also see the indentations where it hung over the edge. “John” informed me one of the plates can pivot a couple of degrees – hence the need for the use of a notched plate for stability – which likely also contributed to differential pressure applied across the bottle.

nalgene bottom deformed

It was tough to eyeball where to place the Nalgene.

One of our concerns was the effect the two bolts securing the top plate might have on the test. It turned out not to be an issue. One of the bolts did come into contact with the top lip, but only caused a slight indentation. Disaster avoided!


My very helpful scale is pointing out the notch created when the bottle lip was in contact with an anchoring bolt.

This test was a little less dramatic than the first, with no cracks or crazy shapes, and we knew it was not going to shatter. The most surprising find was that major structural failure occurred under the same load of 1400 lbs. Unfortunately I am now all out of these Nalgene bottles. Experimentation over?

Remove a carbon coat from thin sections with methanol

tl;dr: methanol is great but don’t let it kill you

Thin sections, oh glorious thin sections! They are little slices of truth, windows into the processes that shape all rocks. And for a variety of reasons, geologists do terrible things to them. Thin sections are subjected to staining, acid etching, laser beams and more. In my case, my samples are all subjected to the electron microprobe for in-situ mineral analysis. The first step in this process is to coat each thin section in carbon. Samples are placed in a carbon evaporator, which creates a vacuum (down to at least ~10^-4 torr) and coats the sample in a ~20nm thick carbon layer. This is great for analytical work, but it dulls everything in plane polarized light, can mask birefringence colors, and just forget about trying reflect light microscopy.

Carbon coated lunar basalt 70135,64 looks mostly “normal” in plane-polarized light (though a bit dim). Most major phases are easily identifiable (plag = plagioclase; px = pyroxene), but reflected light is necessary to identify opaques…

Same area of lunar basalt 70135,64 shown in reflected light. Not only can you still not identify the opaque phases, but you’ve lost the boundaries between plagioclase and pyroxene!

It’s just a big gray mass of cracks. If you need to take a second look at your sample, that carbon coat will just have to go! Despite being only 20nm thick, the coating is surprisingly resilient. You must also take care not to damage the thin section, so what do you do? There are various ways to approach carbon coat removal, and I thought it would be useful to highlight two common methods: grit and methanol

Removing a carbon coating with Al-polish

Use a fine grit Al-oxide powder and water to polish off the carbon coat. This quote from a mineral forum post suggests several ways to remove a carbon coat, including:

The simplest way to remove a carbon coat or a gold coat is via a 1 micron Al2O3-H2O slurry (1 part Al2O3 to 8 parts H2O) on a Buehler Polishing Cloth ( Catalog No. 40-7218 Microcloth with adhesive for a 8 inch wheel) aka “moleskin”. Gentle rubbing of the thin section or grain mount by hand on the mole skin polishing cloth (on a flat surface) with a generous amount of the slurry will completely remove the coating both on the surface of the mineral grains as well as in between the cracks and grain boundaries. This is due to the the action of the very fine short hairs of the moleskin. The Al2O3 can be easily removed under a running tap (preferably distilled water) or else (if fussy) in distilled water for five minutes under ultrasound. Afterwards the thin section or grain mount should be dried using a soft cloth or a kleenex wipe.

I really like the idea of using a polishing cloth, as it is rather difficult to remove carbon from low areas (e.g., cracks) with only a kimwipe. Removing Al2O3 buildup in these areas can also prove difficult. In addition, this method gets messy, and I am always worried about over-polishing and losing the sample. That is why I prefer to use methanol.

Removing a carbon coating with methanol

Methanol is also an effective carbon coat remover, with one caveat: Methanol is extremely toxic! You should already be wearing gloves during cleaning to prevent your gross human oils from transferring to the thin sections, but in the case of methanol it is an absolute necessity to have proper hand protection. I also prefer to work under a fume hood to prevent inhalation (and because it smells wicked strong). Methanol is my preferred method because it is clear and evaporates rapidly, making for an easy assessment of the status of carbon removal and leaves almost nothing to clean up.

Before, during, and after carbon coat removal. Methanol preferentially removed carbon from the sample, so it was cleaned before the surrounding epoxy. The thin section is 1″ diameter.

How I removed this carbon coat with methanol:

  1. Wear safety gloves
  2. Place the thin section on a flat surface
  3. Moisten a kimwipe with a drop or two of methanol
  4. Hold the thin section in place and rub the kimwipe in a variably circular motion, applying gentle pressure
  5. Regularly change the face of the kimwipe being rubbed on the thin section. This minimizes the risk of loosened material scratching the surface.
  6. Keep the kimwipe moist but not too juicy with methanol
  7. Check your progress in reflected light. The image below is the nearly-cleaned thin section, with a couple trouble spots to finish up. Checking your progress early and often is the best way to get your eye in on carbon coat removal. You won’t know when it’s all gone if you have no idea what it looked like before you started!

A couple of minutes work on 70135,64 and the carbon coat is nearly gone. Now we can see the opaque phases in 70135,64 are mostly ilmenite, with some exsolution troilite (and unlabeled Fe-metal and possible melt inclusions) popping out that we would have missed previously.

70135,64 after methanol removal of the carbon coat. Notice the change from the previous picture – we uncovered a new exsolution feature in the lower left ilmenite grain. The ugly methanol droplets are also almost all gone, and the remaining “bubbles” are melt inclusions.

A few swipes with a methanol-dipped kimwipe is also a quick way to remove all those annoying loose particles surrounding laser ablation pits.

Conversation with a Beekeeper (audio)

Did you know that bees dance? How about why they swarm? Listen and learn!

On Monday, October 29th, I had a virtual sit down with Ben Gajewski to speak bees as a follow up to his guest post. The final product is just over an hour in length – we covered a lot of ground. There are around 40 sub-topics, from social biology (biologist Tom Seeley of Cornell gets a shout-out) and beekeeping regulations to buying tractor trailers of corn syrup and why Ben has “a lot of dead bees in the garage”.

BEN: Want me to introduce myself again, or…?

PAT: No, I have to introduce you, and then you say ‘thank you for having me’.

BEN: I can’t wait for this interview, I think it will be fantastic.

PAT: Hello everybody, this is Pat from poikiloblastic, interviewing my good friend Ben Gajewski from Geneseo, NY about his beekeeping facilities…

BEN: Thanks, thanks for having me, Pat. Good to chat with you again.

Continue reading

Guest Post: Beekeeping With Ben

Too lazy to read? Check out the follow-up interview with Ben!

Slight departure today: I’m off on a geology adventure to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, so in the meantime I’ve lined up my friend Benjamin Gajewski to give a beekeeping overview! He is a hobby beekeeper in Geneseo, NY and part of the Ontario-Finger Lakes Beekeepers Association. From his hives he is able to harvest honey for gifts and small scale sales, but more importantly enjoys the beekeeping process and learning about bees. A full time conservationist, Ben is also a freelance photographer. He’s a decent photographer and recently started keeping bees, which seemed a good combination for a guest post. I will have a follow-up Q&A with Ben in a week or two (Update: the interview is here), so leave a comment if you have any questions! Photo and text credit go to Ben.

For a newbie (pun intended) honeybees can be obtained through purchase of a package (a screen box containing 3lbs of honeybees, sugar water for food, and a caged queen that is new to the bees), a nucleus hive or nuc (five honeycomb frames split from a pre-existing colony containing eggs/larva in all stages, workers, a queen, pollen, and honey), or by capturing a wild swarm or extracting bees from a wall or other structure. Seen here, a swarm clings to a tree branch allowing for easy capture.

Once the colony (a group of bees) is installed into a hive (the physical space a colony inhabits) it is helpful to ensure the bees are aware they are in a new location so they do not attempt to return to their previous hive. Placing grass clippings and leafs in front of the hive entrance will alert the bees they are in a new spot.

Short circular orientation flights will take place as the bees first exit the new hive prior to longer work flights to find flowers.

The Langstroth hive (above) is the most widely used worldwide and is designed to provide an agreeable space for bees. Placing frames with foundation (a thin sheet of plastic or wax with a honeycomb pattern) or foundation already drawn out with honeycomb will help keep the bees from leaving their new hive. Adding feeding jars will also help prevent the bees from absconding; seen here 1:1 sugar-water is being added through the inner cover. The outer cover, leaning on the hive will prevent other insects from being attracted to this food source.

Bees will immediately start to draw out comb to allow the queen to begin laying eggs to increase the colony’s population. A swarm or package may only be one tenth the size of the ultimate colony population. A colony can contain upwards of 80,000-100,000 bees. Honeycomb will also provide for the storage of pollen and nectar, and eventually honey that will be capped for future use.

Once oriented, bees will quickly begin their work looking for nectar and pollen sources. Food brought from their former hive and the sugar water feed will only temporarily sustain the bees.

When a worker finds an ample nectar or pollen source, they will return to the hive and dance to allow others to return to the site. Two bees (on right) dance here, one leading with precise angles and distances to describe the location, the other bee follows behind to learn the location.

Nectar is retrieved from flowers. Nectar will be processed by the bees into honey for later consumption.

Pollen, collected and stored in pouches (yellow here), also brushes against a bee’s fuzzy body and will pollinate other flowers the bee visits. Pollen is used directly in the hive as a source of protein.

The Langstroth hive design allows for easy removal of neatly drawn out comb with honey. An uncapping tool is used to carefully remove the wax cap on honey cells.

Various hand and electric extracting machines exist to spin frames, flinging honey out of the honeycomb onto the side walls where it drips to the bottom of the container.

A series of filters are used to remove wax and other debris that gets mixed in with the honey during the extraction process. Honey is edible straight from the hive but impurities can limit salability.

A sweet reward for a season’s work. Properly harvested and bottled honey will last indefinitely.

Extraction of honey may be the end to the season, but preparations must be made to help ensure the hive will survive through the winter. Beekeepers use various methods, or none at all, to aid bees during the winter months. Here two hives have been wrapped with tar paper. Holes are left at the bottom and toward the top of the hive to allow for proper circulation and bee exits.

During the winter short cleansing flights will take place on sunny days when the temperature allows bees to leave the hive briefly. Bees will leave the hive to defecate and remove dead bees to help keep the hive clean cold periods when leaving the hive is not possible.

Wedge Fifty: The Catskills Conundrum

The following mystery was written for Accretionary Wedge #50, hosted by Evelyn of Georneys. This month we are invited to:

Share a fun moment from geology field camp or a geology field trip. You can share a story, a picture, a song, a slogan, a page from your field notebook– anything you like!

On to the story…

The Brunton Compass is a field geology staple. Image from the Brunton website (click to visit).

Every geologist worth their rock salt recognizes – and hopefully knows how to use – a Brunton Compass (Evelyn gave them their due in B is for Brunton). Housing a compass (with adjustable declination), clinometer and mirror at less than 10 ounces, the Brunton is important as much for its form as its function. One of the more common uses of a Brunton is to take strike and dip measurements of strata. Strike indicates the compass direction of the originally horizontal bedding plane (i.e. the orientation). Dip is the angle relative to horizontal in the downward direction of the bedding plane, measured with a simple adjustable bubble level.

Visualizing strike and dip can be tough at first, and it’s easier done than said. That’s why, on an undergraduate class trip to the Catskills, our first task of the day was to warm up with some Brunton practice – and we needed some warming up. It was crisp late September morning, and many of us were sporting geology club hoodies, warm hats and gloves. Fortunately the Catskills record a smorgasbord of interesting geologic events to get the blood flowing, and our first stop of the day was a doozy.

The “Taconic Unconformity” near Catskill, NY. Steeply dipping Ordovician sandstone interbedded with shale (right) lies unconformibly below a not-quite-as-steeply dipping Silurian-age limestone and medium-grained sandstone (left).

There is no evidence of deformation on the discontinuity (it is an angular unconformity), but there is a fault zone as well, with slickenlines. Ron Schott’s gigapan of the area shows the broader context, though I couldn’t find any slickenlines. Anyway, Bruntons in hand, we spread out over the outcrop to measure the strike and dip of the surfaces with slickenlines. Some of the not-quite-awake students worked in pairs.

It is not difficult to persuade geologists to climb. Here the structures class swarms an outcrop in the Catskills to practice using a Brunton in taking strike and dip measurements.

After our Professor had made the rounds to see everyone had the general idea, we collected together and reached a general consensus of strike and dip measurements. The slickenlines were striking towards the west-northwest and were dipping around 45 degrees south…I think. My notes from this trip aren’t very good, but everyone seemed to be in agreement. Well, almost everyone.

One student spoke up about some wonky strike measurements she had recorded. Sometimes they would be striking west, but then other areas seemed to say the slickenlines were striking north or southwest. Her dip measurements were spot on, but she was getting no consistency with strike. It wasn’t a method issue, as she demonstrated she used the normal strike-taking steps. We had a mystery on our hands! A nice little brain teaser to start the morning. The Prof started running through a process of elimination to find the source of error.

It is possible for magnetic minerals in rocks to mess with the compass and give erroneous strike measurements, but that was ruled out as the rest of us were getting consistent results. The Prof took strike in one area, then had her measure the same location and it was way off. They swapped Bruntons with the same result. A little frustrated, the student took off her fingerless mittens to get a better feel when taking strike measurements. She remeasured the strike and finally read a west-northwest strike. The Prof gave her back her Brunton, and the needle once again pointed west-northwest. Things seemed back to normal…but what caused the slew of mis-measurements that morning?

The Prof figured it out first. He asked to see a mitten, which had a flap that could be folded back to make a fingerless glove. The student had been using it in the fingerless configuration, with the flap held securely to the back of the mitten. The Prof folded the flap near the back of the mitten and smiled as several small but powerful hidden magnets pulled the flap back into place with a dull thud.

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!

Six days in the crater, day three

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6

This post is part of a slowly unfolding saga of my experience at the Meteor Crater Field Camp that was held from October 17-23, 2010. The field camp was run under the NASA Lunar Science Institute and headed by Dr. David Kring of the Lunar and Planetary Institute.
This post also doubles as my entry into Accretionary Wedge #49: Out of This World, which focuses on extraterrestrial geology and terrestrial analogues. Thanks to Dana at En Tequila Es Verdad for hosting this month’s Wedge!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010.

From above, our deluge of sun hats would appear to run into and froth against the tourist rope corral for a moment before spilling over and around into the area of No Trespassing. Rapidly arriving at a flattened part of the rim, we diffuse and come to rest, idly shifting for something in our backpacks and maybe a better view into the crater. David starts speaking of the plans for the day, and it takes us a few moments to realize we’re looking in the wrong direction. We turn around and he points at a small hill near the side of an access road. Pondering aloud, he wonders What do you suppose that boulder is doing on top of that hill?

Hint: It’s not a geocache.

The plains surrounding Meteor Crater are afflicted with an excess of flatness. Aside from the crater itself, the only relief is from scattered blocks, mounds and low rises of Coconino Sandstone and Kaibab Dolostone. They are blemishes on the otherwise flat patchwork terrain surrounding the crater. Like the boulder on the hill, many large coherent blocks of ejecta excavated during impact were thrown out of the crater and now rest upwards of 300 feet above where they ought to. Three days in, we were no longer tourists; It was time for science. We started work to answer a few relatively simple questions: Where in the crater did those blocks originate? How big are they? What would it take to launch them tens and hundreds of meters to their current position?

To answer those questions, the group split in two. One team examined the ejecta blocks, recording their dimensions and lithology. The other team measured the distance from crater to ejecta, using a physical measuring tape and recording map position and GPS coordinates to cross-check calculations. It was a rather straightforward assignment that also got us thinking in terms of cratering processes. The furthest blocks we studied were a solid five minute walk from the crater. It is easy to lose sight of something that is no longer present, but after the initial impact we would have been scrambling over several additional meters of ejecta the whole trip.

The measuring group stands on the rim of Meteor Crater as the tape is prepared for the trek to ejecta block E-3. Some members of the lithology group are visible on the white block of Kaibab (limestone) in the distance.

Team Tape and Team Lithology knocked out six profiles over the course of the day, including an assessment of the famous three-story-tall House Rock (a.k.a. Monument Rock). Six blocks is a small sample set to be sure, but one that lays the groundwork for a more thorough and complete ejecta study to be conducted over a number of Meteor Crater Field Camps. With a few simplifying assumptions – radial path, ballistic trajectory, 45 degree angle of ejection – our results indicated flight times for these boulders of three to fifteen seconds at ~60-360 km/hr [~15-100 m/s]. These velocities get well above hurricane force winds (though they pale in comparison to the ~12 km/s impact velocity). And we’re not talking about shingles and trees flying around – these are multi-ton boulders getting hucked out in all directions. Given enough force, ejecta can go anywhere. House Rocks might not get very far, but there are loads of examples of ejecta traveling hundreds of kilometers, into the atmosphere, or even off-planet. We only have fragments of Mars as a result of a few impacts into the martian surface sending material into space and eventually to Earth. Simon Wellings (@metageologist) wrote a bit more about the evidence of impacts in his contribution to the Wedge, What came from outer space.

The Apollo Era really brought to light the importance of impact processes on the evolution of planetary surfaces. Apollo missions also proved a challenge to geologists. No lunar material was collected in-situ, which means the provenance of many samples is uncertain. The provenance of regolith (soil) and impact breccia fragments is still the subject of intense debate. Many of these fragments likely have origins in basin forming events (e.g., the Sea of Tranquility). Boulders like those surrounding Camelot Crater in the above photo, are a bit easier to reconcile with their source. Mapping the distribution of ejecta lithology around terrestrial and lunar craters is the ground-truth to theoretical distribution models. Gravity and atmospheric conditions may differ between the Earth and Moon, but the results of an impact are similar across the solar system.

Top: Boulder field at Camelot Crater from the Apollo 17 mission. Panorama compiled by Warren Harold of NASA/JSC. Bottom: Looking outward from the rim of Meteor Crater. Both images are in color.

Learn more about impact cratering processes with the Lunar & Planetary Institute Impact Cratering Lab