Video Courtesy of NASA/Goddard
The NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft, which in late June marked three years in lunar polar orbit, is continuing to build on its list of major discoveries that is putting a new face on the Moon.
The two ton $500 million Goddard Space Flight Center spacecraft discovered early on that the Moon remains geologically active with its crust still shrinking and stretching in different places from remnant subsurface heat from its creation 4.5 billion years ago.
The LRO data has not found any new information to challenge the most popular theory on lunar creation. That theory is that the Moon’s material was once part of the Earth, but blasted into orbit by Earth’s collision with a Mars sized object when both bodies were molten 4.5 billion years ago.
Some of LRO’s most notable achievements are:
—Transmitted data indicating the Moon has at least 6.6 billion tons of water ice. The ice could be used by future explorers for drinking water, radiation shielding or oxygen for breathing and liquid hydrogen for rocket propellant when combined with liquid oxygen.
LRO’s own sensor suite combined with the sensors on the LCROSS Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, that flew into the plume blasted up by LRO’s Centaur stage as it hit the Moon, have provided much of this water ice data. But additional ice information has continued to flow in from LRO’s radiometer and other sensors.
—–Found and mapped very specific locations on the Moon where major deposits of the important mineral Lunar Ilmenite can be found. It is a titanium-iron oxide mineral highly enriched in magnesium that scientists believe would be critical in the development of any base on the Moon. Oxygen can be easily extracted from Lunar Ilmenite and it would also be used to fashion building materials for permanent structures. The Earthly version of Ilmenite is mined in 13 countries.
LRO has also discovered titanium fields on the Moon with concentrations of titanium in lunar ore 10 times higher than on Earth. When studying LRO images scientists noticed that areas of lunar seas are reddish and some are blue. The color variations point at concentrations of titanium and iron.
—Found the Moon’s North Polar Region is home to the single coldest place in the entire solar system at -415 degrees Fahrenheit (-248 Celsius).
——Produced unprecedented new maps for new human and robotic landing sites and for pinpointing the Moon’s diverse geologic features and resources. The spacecraft is returning so much high resolution data that the LRO team believes that it could map much of the lunar surface at a resolution of 19.7 inches per pixel. The LRO Camera system has taken about 1 million images so far in the mission.