Particle physics laboratory

NASA robotic mission to explore the Moon’s mysterious Gruithuisen domes

The Gruithuisen domes are located in the largest impact crater on the near side of the Moon. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

LASP will contribute its scientific expertise, data systems and mission operations to a newly funded effort to characterize the lunar surface prior to renewed human exploration.


NASA has selected a new science mission that will land a spacecraft on a part of the Moon that has never been visited before: the Gruithuisen domes. Scientists, mission operators and data analysts from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado at Boulder will play an important role in this mission, which will be led by researchers from the University of Florida. central unit (UCF).

The domes, located along the western edge of Imbrium Basin, the largest impact crater on the near side of the Moon, remain a mystery to scientists. Flyby data from previous missions indicate that the surface of this region is unlike most other volcanic features on the Moon. Rather than the dark, magnesium- and iron-rich volcanic minerals that once crystallized from molten magma in the mare or “seas” of the Moon, the Gruithuisen domes instead appear to be composed of lighter-colored volcanic minerals. and richer in silica.

The new robotic mission, called Lunar Vulkan Imaging and Spectroscopy Explorer (Lunar-VISE), was selected as part of NASA’s highly competitive Payloads and Research Investigations on the Surface of the Moon (PRISM) program. It’s part of the federal agency’s plan to use commercial companies to transport payloads to the Moon through its Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. A series of missions have been approved to support the Artemis program and continue lunar exploration. Lunar-VISE is expected to launch in 2026.

“We’re still impressed,” says UCF assistant professor Kerri Donaldson Hanna, the mission’s principal investigator. “We will use a suite of instruments on a lander and a rover to study the composition of the domes, including the composition and properties of regolith and boulders and how lunar dust reacts to the lander and rover when he explores the volcanic dome. There is potentially a treasure trove of knowledge waiting to be uncovered that will not only help inform future robotic and human exploration of the Moon, but may also help us better understand the history of our own planet as well as other planets in the solar system. .”

The LASP lunar experts

Two LASP researchers, Margaret Landis and Paul Hayne, will participate in Lunar-VISE as co-investigators. Landis will focus on how two types of spectroscopy, including gamma rays and neutrons produced by galactic cosmic ray bombardment and thermal infrared photons, can work together to learn more about the near composition of surface of the Gruithuisen domes. Understanding the composition below the Moon’s surface can help interpret how much the surface has changed by being exposed to space over billions of years.

Hayne, who is also an assistant professor in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder, will lead the development of a thermal camera to be built by Ball Aerospace. The Lunar-VISE Compact Infrared Imaging System (LV-CIRiS) will provide new insights into the composition and porosity of the Gruithuisen domes magma source, as well as the physical properties of lunar surface materials. LASP will also direct mission operations and process scientific data collected from each of the instruments.

“We are excited for this opportunity to descend to the surface and see the domes up close through infrared ‘eyes’, to better understand how the Moon’s crust evolved to produce such unusual volcanic features,” Hayne said. . “Ground-truthing of the Gruithuisen domes will also help us better interpret observations taken from lunar orbit.”

“This is an opportunity to do some field work on the Moon, and I look forward to working with Kerri and the rest of the team to plan and interpret the rover traverses,” Landis says. “We have a lot of silicic domes on Earth and figuring out how they got put on the Moon is going to be a big puzzle to solve.”

“LASP’s mission operators and data analysts will serve as a vital link between this lunar rover, NASA, and the many mission partners,” said Jerry Jason, Mission Operations and Systems Division Director. LASP data. “We are honored to contribute to this exciting scientific research and to help support NASA’s goal of returning to the Moon and using innovative technologies to further explore its surface.”

Additional mission partners

Ball Aerospace will build three camera systems for this mission: the Context and Descent Cameras, the VNIR Imaging Camera, and the Compact Infrared Imaging System, known as LV-CIRiS. The context and descent cameras will be located on the lander and will be used to observe the work of the rover throughout the mission; the other two will be located on the rover and will provide critical information on the composition and properties of volcanic domes.

Arizona State University will provide a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer, which will be located on the rover. This will be the first time this type of instrument will make measurements from the lunar surface, according to Donaldson Hanna. This instrument will be essential for identifying the elemental composition of the top ~1 meter of material, which is important for understanding how these zones formed.

From terrestrial examples, it is believed that silicic volcanism may require water. If the spectrometer indicates that there is a high abundance of hydrogen in the Gruithuisen domes, it may support this hypothesis and indicate a new importance of water in lunar volcanism and as a source of lunar polar water. Volatiles like water can also act as important tracers for the melting and recrystallization history of volcanic rocks, and ratios of elements like iron and magnesium can be used to compare domes to samples of moon rock.

The science team also includes lunar experts from the University of California, Los Angeles, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Maryland, Planetary Science Institute, United States Geological Survey and University of Oxford.

The mission’s goal of better understanding the behavior of dust will be important in planning trips to the Moon and long-term missions on its surface. Not only can the dust damage spacecraft and instruments, Donaldson Hanna says, but it could pose dangers to astronauts who aren’t properly equipped.

“It’s very exciting to be selected,” says Adrienne Dove, associate professor at UCF, the mission’s deputy principal investigator. “It was an ambitious proposition, but what we learn will be invaluable. Upon landing we will be able to see how the dust is disturbed and then observe how the area changes over time. We will be able to observe how the rover changes the surface as it moves through the domes to do its job. At present, we have a limited number of direct observations and data from the Apollo missions, and some more recent Chinese lander and rover missions, so this will be a significant additional contribution.