Profile: The Science of Lunar Exploration

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  Space News Business

Profile: The Science of Lunar Exploration

By DEBRA WERNER
Space News Correspondent
posted: 07 April 2009
04:49 pm ET






David Morrison

Interim Director, NASA Lunar Science Institute

Since the NASA Lunar Science Institute was established one year ago at the NASA Ames Research Center, Interim Director David Morrison has led the organization through the first competitive selection process and the awarding of roughly $40 million in funding to seven teams conducting research on a wide range of topics including the Moon’s history, its gravitational field, resources, surface conditions and the utility of the Moon as a platform for astronomical observations.

The institute awarded that funding in January through four-year, cooperative agreements designed to give researchers dispersed across the country great flexibility to revise research goals and take advantage of opportunities that arise as international missions and observations produce new data.

By supporting lunar science with a virtual organization, modeled on the NASA Astrobiology Institute, the space agency is seeking to bolster university research in the field. If the Lunar Science Institute is successful in its mission, it will help to revitalize lunar science by drawing young, enthusiastic scientists into the fold, producing stimulating research and serving as a catalyst for international collaboration, Morrison said.

In addition to the seven
U.S.
teams, three international partners,
Korea
, the
United Kingdom
and
Canada
, have joined the Institute through agreements that include no exchange of funding, but are designed to spur discussion and collaboration.

Before taking over the Lunar Science Institute, Morrison led the Astrobiology Institute also based at
Ames
in
Mountain View
,
Calif.
A planetary scientist by training, Morrison, 68, has been an investigator on many NASA missions including Mariner 10, Voyager, Galileo and the newly launched Kepler space telescope. Morrison, co-author of the popular astronomy textbook, The Planetary System, spoke recently with Space News correspondent Debra Werner.

What benefits do you derive from being a virtual institute as opposed to having people working here?

There would be a number of arguments against hiring a lot of people. The most obvious is we don’t have the money to hire a lot of people. But more important, we want to develop a lunar science community in academic institutions. We don’t want to steal their best people. We want them to do the science in their home institutions and, in the process, train the next generation of lunar scientists. It would be very counter-productive to bring them into NASA. It’s much better for NASA to reach out to the science community.

Can you get the political support that you would if you had a large institute in one district?

I am no expert on political support. My assumption is its better to be distributed and have people in many districts. But that was not a consideration in selecting the teams for the institute.

Why are we still interested in the Moon 40 years after Apollo?

The Moon is a very interesting object to planetary scientists. But to jump to the bottom line, it’s not just any Moon, it’s our Moon. It’s been living with Earth for 4.5 billion years. It preserves a record of impacts, solar activity, even of rocks from Earth that have been transported to the Moon. So we look at it as an example of a planetary object but also as a witness plate for studying the history of the Earth. In addition, we look to the Moon as a place where humans will live, as a place that can be used for astronomical observations and observations of Earth. It is more than just a distant planetary object. It is also a place where humans have a long-term future.

Do humans have a long-term future on the Moon?

I think if we want to, we will. It will depend on where else we are going, what capability we have. I think it will also depend on whether we can find resources on the Moon. As you know one issue that is paramount today is whether there is water or other volatiles in permanently shadowed craters.

Is that one of the things your teams will investigate?

We selected our teams by a highly competitive proposal review process. One of the teams that came out on top is focused very clearly on the conditions at the lunar poles and on the possibilities for volatiles there. It is important to say we are a science institute. We also support exploration but we do not build instruments. We do not fly missions. We are interested in the underlying scientific and technical questions. We don’t have the budget or the aspirations to get involved in actual missions.

The 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act includes $109 million for lunar science. Is that money for your institute?

I wish. We are looking at long-term support to increase because we want to add more teams in another competition in two years. But I don’t get into the budget issues.

What is the current budget for the institute?

We have agreed to fund seven teams at about $1.5 million per year. That’s a little over $10 million plus the cost for running the central office. It’s on the order of $10 million to $12 million per year.

Do you plan to double the number of teams participating?

That is not a decision that has been made yet. I am very anxious to have another competition because there were some outstanding teams that we were unable to select and I’d really like to see us broaden our base. For instance, we didn’t select any teams working in life sciences. That is one of many options that would be nice to exercise. But it will all be done competitively and the proposals will be selected. We will discuss this with NASA headquarters. The decisions are ultimately theirs.

What role will international teams play in the Lunar Science Institute?

We hope they will play a strong role. We have selected three international partners and we are in discussions with about five more. By the end of this year we could have as many or more international teams as U.S. teams. That’s very appropriate. The science satellites that have been at the Moon this year were Japanese, Chinese and Indian. So it is important to us to have links with the scientific communities in those countries.

Are those the countries you are talking to about joining the institute?

Yes. We are talking to a variety of countries. I’m not going to name them because I don’t know what’s going to come from each of those discussions. Ideally, we would have nations that are leaders in spacecraft work like
China
and
Japan
and others, like many European countries, that may not be sending spacecraft to the Moon but have a long tradition of lunar science.

Does inviting someone to join the institute help you share in the data from their missions?

When an international partner joins the institute, basically they get a seat at the table. They have the opportunity to talk with and develop collaborations with U.S. scientists. Nothing is guaranteed and they will follow their own rules in terms of data release. But it just makes sense that we as scientists would want to talk with, collaborate with scientists from other countries. That plays into the objective of building a lunar science community. It shouldn’t just be a U.S. community. It should be an international community.

Will the current budget proposal enable a return to the Moon?

I have no idea. The real question is “Can we make it efficiently. What is the right pace of expenditure?” But I do not know the answer to that.

Do you worry about the future of the institute if NASA’s lunar ambitions recede?

I don’t worry about that because we are focused on lunar science. I’m sure the science missions for the next few years will go forward. That’s all I can deal with right now. We have a lot to do whether we are on track for human landing or not.

Do any of your current projects use the Moon as a platform?

One of our teams is basically an astrophysics team. They are examining a whole range of ways in which the Moon could be valuable as an astronomical platform. We only selected our teams a couple of months ago. We have no results from them yet.

What type of life science research could be conducted?

I always like to point out that humans are not going to go alone to the Moon. You probably know that there are more parasitic microbes living on you than the number of cells in your own body. If humans are going to have a long-term future, it’s not just humans, it’s the whole ecological system including the microbes that we carry with us and the plants that we need to learn to grow.