IT IS the best of times and the worst of times for lunar scientists. “We’ve got a revolution going on in our understanding of the lunar surface,” says Rick Elphic of NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. Three recent missions have found an unexpectedly large supply of water on the moon that could both quench the thirst of future lunar dwellers and produce fuel for missions to other places in the solar system.
Yet the prospect of astronauts getting there any time soon is receding fast. In February, President Barack Obama announced his intention to cancel NASA’s Constellation programme, which included plans to get astronauts back to the moon by the early 2020s. His decision leaves the US without a reliable means of transport to low Earth orbit, let alone the moon.
Even so, the 2010s are shaping up to be a boom time for lunar science. The Obama administration’s plans give strong financial support to robotic exploration of the solar system, including the moon. NASA already has four robotic missions in the works, designed to explore the moon’s atmosphere, gravity and seismology. And one of the three finalists to be NASA’s next medium-sized mission is a robot called MoonRise, which would land in the vast South Pole-Aitken basin, dig up soil samples and return them to Earth. China and India, too, are planning follow-ups to their successful Chang’e and Chandrayaan orbiters, and Russia and Germany have missions in development.
What has reinvigorated lunar science most of all are the discoveries of water made last year by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), as well as India’s Chandrayaan-1.
“Not only is there water on the moon,” says Carle Pieters, the chief scientist for the Moon Mineralogy Mapper on Chandrayaan-1, “but there are three different kinds of water.”
Pieters is referring to the discovery in 2008 of trace amounts of water in volcanic glasses from deep in the moon’s interior, surface water detected by Chandrayaan-1, and buried water at the poles dug up by LCROSS. “They are all different, and they all have different sources and implications,” she says.
“This is not your father’s moon,” says Greg Delory, a space scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. “Rather than a dead and unchanging world, it could be a very dynamic and interesting one.”