Moon Monday Issue #50

Chang'e 5 lunar samples continue opening volcanic mystery boxes, NASA completes assembling first big Moon mission hardware ahead of launch, continued Human Landing System drama, & more lunar updates.

Welcome to the 50th issue in the 50th week of Moon Monday! I hope you enjoy reading this one-of-a-kind lunar exploration and science newsletter as much as I enjoy writing it. 🚀🌗

Highlight & Science

Earlier this month, we learnt that the Moon samples brought by the Chang’e 5 mission from near a volcanic dome are 1.96 billion years old, confirming that our Moon was volcanically active (geologically) recently. A new, similar study of different Chang’e 5 basaltic rock fragments by scientists in Beijing find a closely matching age of 2.03 billion years.

They also concurred with the other paper in reporting an unexpectedly low abundance of heat-producing elements such as uranium, potassium, and thorium. Scientists thought for a long time that such heat-providing elements would have kept volcanism on the Moon alive for over a billion years after peak volcanism ended over 3 billion years ago. But the Moon seems to have a different interior than expected, and yet kept erupting lava, alluding to a different mechanism at play.

Another group of Chinese scientists found very low water content in several Chang’e 5 basalts fragments. Based on that and other studies from the first batch of 17 grams of distributed samples—like the one that tells us the properties of the samples—the group estimated the 2-billion-year old lunar mantle to have had 1-5 parts per million of water, meaning the Moon’s interior was very dry. Notably, the water concentration is far lower than the consensus of its values over a billion years prior as derived from Apollo and Luna sample studies.

The low water content suggests loss of that water via volcanic degassing on the Moon over those hundreds of millions of years, and that there was no significant mantle water to catalyze young lunar volcanism. It all begs the question: How did the now older and cooler Moon keep spewing lava? And how does it change what we know about the Moon and how interiors of planets evolve?

More results from ongoing research, including the upcoming distribution of a second set of Chang’e 5 samples, a third set later this year open to international scientists, and future sampling missions will inform us of this enigmatic and key period in the Moon’s thermal and evolutionary history.

The scientific value of the Chang’e 5 samples isn’t limited to the Moon or better modeling insides of planets. Scientists use precise ages of lunar places and regions determined from such samples to calibrate the ages of features on other solar system worlds such as Mars, Mercury, and the icy moons. Chang’e 5 samples will thus help refine our understanding of the chain of key events in our solar system.

Exploration

On October 20, NASA successfully mated the Orion spacecraft and its connected launch abort tower atop the SLS rocket, completing the assembly of all elements of the Artemis I mission to send the uncrewed Orion spacecraft around the Moon and back. NASA also announced that Artemis I will launch in February 2022. Between now and then, NASA will conduct a series of tests including interface testing of different rocket stages, specific engineering tests such as engine thrust vector control, wet dress rehearsals on the launchpad i.e. loading and unloading super-chilled cryogenic propellants, communications tests, and ultimately simulated launch countdowns and rehearsals.

The white Orion spacecraft and its launch abort tower being lowered on top of the SLS rocket in the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’ Kennedy Space Center on October 20, 2021. Credits: NASA (1, 2)

Last month after Indian Prime Minister Modi visited the U.S. President Biden, the White House released a statement noting that “The U.S welcomes India’s consideration of potential cooperation in Artemis and the Artemis Accords.” This is an indication that India could again collaborate with NASA to explore the Moon and might join the 12 other signee nations of the Accords, a framework which NASA calls “a practical set of principles to guide cooperation among nations participating in NASA’s 21st century lunar exploration plans.”

In preparation for NASA VIPER rover’s 2023 launch to the Moon’s south pole to study the nature of its water ice and other resources, NASA assembled a practice rover (video) to identify and fix issues before they assemble the real deal. Indeed, the process revealed several small assembly improvements to be made to better build the flight model. Next up for VIPER is its Critical Design Review, after which the actual manufacturing and assembly of flight hardware can begin.

On October 18, the U.S. Senate released the latest draft of its appropriation bills for fiscal year 2022, which if passed in its current form would direct NASA to select a second company to develop a Human Landing System in addition to the agency’s selection of SpaceX Starship to land humans on the Moon. However, they provided only $100 million more than the previously allocated $1.195 billion for said ask. The U.S. Senate rejects NASA’s claims of the Human Landing System program being underfunded, noting that the agency only requested $1.195 billion for said program next financial year despite needing 4 times as much. SpacePolicyOnline has a great breakdown of the drama, as usual.

Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin said that Russia’s Luna-26 lunar polar orbiter will launch in 2024 on a Soyuz-2 rocket and the Luna-27 lander will launch in 2025 on an Angara rocket. As part of the “Reconnaissance phase (2021-2025)” of the Chinese-Russian-led International Lunar Research Station, Luna-26 will help choose a location for the scientific base, preferably on the Moon’s south pole, and Luna-27 will verify high-precision Moon landing technologies. Luna-28, launching between 2027 and 2028, will be part of the “Construction phase (2026-2035),” and will deliver cargo to the selected site to begin setting up base infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Luna-25 Moon landing mission will launch in May 2022 on a Soyuz-2 rocket. Luna-25 will have 30 kilograms of scientific instruments, including an arm to sample material from 20 to 30 centimeters below the surface and feed it to a laser spectrometer to determine which elements and isotopes are present. There’s also an ESA camera onboard to image the landing, and a neutron and gamma ray spectrometer to identify what the subsurface is made of. The mission’s landing site, while not truly polar due to engineering constraints, is selected at about 70° South such that subsurface water ice can still be detected and mapped.

More Moon

Have high-school kids or teach them? Check out the NASA-aided Lunabotics Junior Contest to design a robot concept for a resource excavation mission on the Moon’s south pole.


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