Lunar Scientists Need You

July 25, 2010 by
Filed under: General Space Topic 

Have you ever daydreamed of exploring space? Ever found yourself wandering off on an imaginary expedition of discovery across some vast, alien landscape? Of course, the regular guy and gal could never hope to make such a journey in person. That’s really only Hollywood stuff. Right? Wrong. In fact, you now have the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the Apollo astronauts and be the next human to look across the moonscape and discover some of its many secrets as part of a serious and ongoing scientific program.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter launched on June 18, 2009, and since it arrived in orbit around the moon has been taking the highest resolution images of its surface in existence. Data is coming in from the spacecraft at such a phenomenal rate that scientists have difficulty sifting through it all, so they’ve asked for the help of folks just like you to help them identify high-value targets for further scientific study. And for this citizen science project they’ve set up a website where you can go to take part. After viewing videos and other help that will show you how to recognize features, you’ll peruse through images of the moon’s surface few others — if any — have seen, even among planetary scientists. In the process of becoming a lunar researcher, you will learn more about the surface or our nearest neighbor in space than you ever have before and perhaps discover something as yet unknown. It’s a voyage of discovery seldom available to those outside astrophysics.

Go to MoonZoo.org and register. From there, you’ll have tools at your disposal that allow you to mark interesting features like the more recent craters that have excavated light-colored material in an ejecta blanket all around the impact site. They call these fresh white craters, and the science team will count the number that you identify so they can calculate the current impact rate. The information you provide with help them to assess the risk to earth of asteroid strikes.

Fresh white craters are the youngest of the impacts, spreading their ejecta blankets hundreds of kilometers in some cases. Image courtesy NASA.

You may also discover elongated pits. These are areas where a subsurface lava tube has collapsed in on itself. Another, similar feature called a “skylight” has been discovered recently in which only a section of a lava tube’s ceiling has collapsed to reveal a cavernous expanse within. These features have scientists and lunar base planners alike excited. Such areas could serve humans as a natural shelter from the radiation environment. They may also be sources of water, trapping it in frozen form in their permanently dark recesses. In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), more popularly known as the concept of “living off the land,” is an important strategy for maintaining a permanent human presence on the moon. If we can obtain shelter from natural features and extract from them some of the resources and consumables we need, the cost of the venture is dramatically reduced. I becomes obtainable within our lifetimes. It becomes attainable by you!

Elongated pits are areas where subsurface lava tubes have collapsed. Image courtesy NASA.

Spacefaring nations have been launching probes and landers to the surface of the moon for decades. You may also run across the technology they left behind. When you find these pieces of space mission hardware, the positions that you mark will be used to build up a database that can be made available to the worldwide science community and used as positional landmarks for lunar cartographic mapping.

Apollo 17 Landing Site. Note the dark tracks of the lunar rover extending left and right. Image courtesy NASA

These and other features — many of which could only be described as just plain weird — are yours to discover. You’ll have a great deal of fun and adventure, and you can share what you find through the built-in Moon Zoo blog. And perhaps you’ll discover something that no one else has ever seen. If you have the heart of an explorer, this site is definitely for you.

Moon Zoo belongs to a larger community of citizen science projects called the Zooniverse. There you’ll also find Galaxy Zoo Hubble where you can help astronomers figure out how galaxies form and evolve by classifying their shape using Hubble images. There’s Solar Stormwatch where you can help spot explosions on the Sun and track them across space to Earth. Then there’s Galaxy Zoo Mergers and Galaxy Zoo Supernovae. But if you’re interested in helping build a knowledge base of our moon, and in so doing help usher in the age of lunar settlement, Moon Zoo is your best bet.

So log on and plug in to a universe of discovery. You can make a difference, and you’ll satisfy that innate urge to explore that we all have. And maybe, just maybe, the day when you can board a rocket bound for a moon base to see the sights in person will get even closer.

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