Humans will again set foot on the moon; this time, they'll have UArizona science in tow

Astronaut kneels on the lunar surface to install technology

Artist’s concept of an Artemis astronaut deploying an instrument on the lunar surface.


University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory researchers will have a hand in two of the three instruments NASA selected for deployment on the lunar surface by Artemis III astronauts.

Once installed near the moon's South Pole, the instruments will collect valuable scientific data about the lunar environment, the lunar interior and how to sustain a long-duration human presence on the moon, which will help prepare NASA to send astronauts to Mars.

The instruments were specifically chosen because of their unique installation requirements that necessitate deployment by humans during moonwalks, a NASA press release explained. All three payloads were selected for further development towards flight on Artemis III, which is targeted to launch in 2026. Final manifesting decisions about the mission will be determined at a later date. Members of these payload teams will become members of NASA's Artemis III science team.

Artemis III, the first mission to return astronauts to the surface of the moon in more than 50 years, will explore the south polar region of the moon. Several proposed landing regions for the mission are located amid some of the oldest parts of the moon. Together with the permanently shadowed regions, they provide the opportunity to learn about the history of the moon through previously unstudied lunar materials.

Mapping moonquakes

Dani DellaGiustina, assistant professor of planetary sciences in the UArizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, is working as part of the team to design and build two seismometers for the Lunar Environment Monitoring Station, or LEMS. One will be tuned to detect deep moonquakes and the other to detect shallow moonquakes. 

"I am stoked because I have been working for years to develop seismic instruments not just for the moon, but also for asteroids and other bodies like Europa," DellaGiustina said. "So, to see one of them make it to the next step, which is flight opportunity, is really exciting."

LEMS is led by Mehdi Benna from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. NASA Goddard will build and operate LEMS. DellaGiustina is a co-investigator along with Hop Bailey, a UArizona Space Institute program manager, and Angela Marusiak, an assistant research professor of planetary sciences. Veronica Bray, associate research professor in planetary sciences, is assisting with science operations. 

LEMS is a compact, autonomous seismometer suite designed to carry out continuous, long-term monitoring of ground motion from moonquakes, in the lunar south polar region. The instrument will characterize the regional structure of the moon's crust and mantle, which will add valuable information to lunar formation and evolution models. LEMS is intended to operate on the lunar surface from three months up to two years and may become a key station in a future global lunar geophysical network. 

Moonquakes have a few sources, including the same gravitational tug between the moon and Earth that causes ocean tides. Also, in the same way that houses creak as temperatures rise, the moon trembles as it expands and contracts in response to dramatic temperature swings. 

"The big difference between the Earth and the moon is the moon does not have plate tectonics. There is some evidence of faults on the moon, however," Marusiak said.  "One of our goals is to figure out if those faults are active and how active they are, and if they could cause a risk for the astronauts or their habitats." 

Lastly, the researchers also anticipate that LEMS will detect meteor impacts.

Treasures beneath the surface

Erik Asphaug, professor of planetary sciences in the UArizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, is a collaborator on the Lunar Dielectric Analyzer, or LDA, which will reveal what lies a meter deep in the moon's regolith, which is airless soil. 

"As a child of the Apollo era, I find it amazing to be part of this adventure to put an instrument on the moon," Asphaug said. "I've always been a big fan of radio and radar techniques to find out what's inside of things. I'm most excited to see if the regolith near the south pole has active frost."

LDA will measure how the moon's regolith responds to an electric field, which depends on porosity and the presence of volatiles – substances that evaporate – especially ice. It will gather essential information about the structure of the moon's subsurface and monitor whether volatiles migrate as the LDA goes in and out of shadow.

Hideaki "Hirdy" Miyamoto – a University of Tokyo professor, Planetary Science Institute affiliated scientist and adjunct professor at the University of Adelaide – leads the LDA, which is supported by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

"Different materials propagate radio signals at different speeds," Asphaug said, "so when you send a signal and measure its reflection, its speed tells you about composition and porosity. This will be important not only for lunar science, but for establishing a permanent human presence on the moon." 

With the Artemis campaign, NASA will land the first woman, first person of color and its first international partner astronaut on the moon, and establish long-term exploration for scientific discovery and preparation for human missions to Mars for the benefit of all.

"It is exciting to see a new generation of Lunar and Planetary Laboratory scientists build on our legacy of lunar exploration, dating back to even before Apollo," said Mark Marley, the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory director. "Our first major research program was to map the moon. Now we are helping send instruments to detect what lies beneath that surface."

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