From the moment the first human looked at the Moon and saw a face, there has been an interest in getting an up-close on-site investigation of the things seen in telescopes, satellite images rover photos that resemble other humans, statues, pyramids, doors, houses and various interesting and mysterious anomalies on the surface of our closest neighboring space rock. Unfortunately and to the frustration of the curious, NASA has rarely seemed to share that interest … until now.
“Adding to the growing list of commercial deliveries slated to explore more of the Moon than ever before under Artemis, NASA has selected two new science instrument suites, including one that will study the mysterious Gruithuisen Domes for the first time.”
Artemis is the suite of missions that are fast becoming so much more than merely putting humans – both males and females – back on the Moon. In its latest press release, the space agency announced a 10-day project to visit the Gruithuisen Domes (Mons Gruithuisen Gamma and Mons Gruithuisen Delta) located north of the crater Gruithuisen at the western edge of the Mare Imbrium. NASA itself has called the domes a “lunar mystery” and a “geologic enigma” ever since the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) confirmed that, while they sit in the middle of ancient hardened basaltic lava flows which were runny and thin, the Gruithuisens were formed by eruptions of thick silicic lavas which didn't flow outward and instead created the domes. On Earth, silicic volcanoes are formed from two ingredients – liquid water and plate tectonics – which are not present in sufficient quantities on the Moon. Mount St. Helens is a silica volcano on Earth. But without these key ingredients on the Moon, scientists are left to wonder: How did the Gruithuisen Domes form?
“We’ll be using a suite of instruments on a lander and rover to study the domes’ makeup including the composition and properties of regolith and boulders and how lunar dust responds to the lander and rover as it explores the volcanic dome. There’s potentially a treasure trove of knowledge waiting to be discovered, which will not only help us 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.”
Planetary scientists Kerri Donaldson Hanna and Adrienne Dove from the University of Central Florida are heading up the Lunar Vulkan Imaging and Spectroscopy Explorer (Lunar-VISE) investigation, a robotic Artemis mission scheduled to be launched in 2026, which consists of a suite of five instruments, two of which will be mounted on a stationary lander and three mounted on a mobile rover, that will explore the summit of one of the Gruithuisen Domes. The VNIR Imaging Camera and the Compact Infrared Imaging System (another camera) will be located on the rover to gather data on the composition and properties of the domes. The Context and Descent Cameras will be on the lander to observe the rover in action. The rover will also carry a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer – the first time this kind of instrument will make measurements from the lunar surface to identify how the area was formed and possibly where the necessary water came from.
That all sounds both interesting and promising – NASA is finally getting up close to an anomaly that has long baffled Moon watchers. But wait … there’s more!
“The second selected investigation, the Lunar Explorer Instrument for space biology Applications (LEIA) science suite, is a small CubeSat-based device. LEIA will provide biological research on the Moon – which cannot be simulated or replicated with high fidelity on the Earth or International Space Station – by delivering the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae to the lunar surface and studying its response to radiation and lunar gravity.”
In the same press release, NASA announced another project to send a non-human being to the Moon – yeast! Single-celled yeast organisms will be placed on the lunar surface and watched by scientists looking at how they survive under partial Earth gravity and when exposed to heavy deep space radiation, paying special attention to changes in their biological processes as a result. Yeast is one of the hardiest and most useful fungi on Earth … what could possibly go wrong by sending it to the Moon?
That’s a question for a future article. In the meantime, it’s important for us Earthlings to realize that, while it’s not Star Trek, the Artemis project is a big deal combining serious scientific research with returning humans to the lunar surface – this time to establish a base for long-term living. It deserves the excitement that the Apollo missions received … and more.