NASA is using the unique capabilities of the Hubble Space Telescope for a new class of scientific observations of the Earth’s moon.
Hubble’s resolution and sensitivity to ultraviolet light have allowed the telescope to search for important oxygen-bearing minerals on the moon. Since the moon does not have a breathable atmosphere, minerals, such as ilmenite (titanium and iron oxide), may be critical for a sustained human lunar presence. Ilmenite is a potential source of oxygen for breathing or to power rockets.
The new Hubble observations are the first high-resolution, ultraviolet images ever acquired of the moon. The images provide scientists with a new tool to study mineral variations within the lunar crust. As NASA plans future expeditions to the moon, such data, in combination with other measurements, will help ensure the most valuable sites are targeted for robotic and human missions.
“These observations of the moon have been a challenging and highly successful technological achievement for NASA and the Hubble team, since the telescope was not originally designed for lunar observations,” said Jennifer Wiseman, program scientist for the Hubble at NASA Headquarters. “The images will inform both scientific studies of lunar geology and future decisions on further lunar exploration,” she said.
Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys snapped ultraviolet and visible light images of known geologically diverse areas on the side of the moon nearest Earth. These included the Aristarchus impact crater and the adjacent Schroter’s Valley. Hubble also photographed the Apollo 15 and 17 landing sites, where astronauts collected rock and soil samples in 1971 and 1972.
Scientists are comparing the properties of the rock and soil samples from the Apollo sites with the new Hubble images, and the Aristarchus region, which neither humans nor robotic spacecraft have visited. The Hubble observations of Aristarchus crater and Schroter’s Valley will help refine researchers’ understanding of the diverse, scientifically interesting materials in the region and to unravel their full resource potential.
“Our initial findings support the potential existence of some unique varieties of oxygen-rich glassy soils in both the Aristarchus and Apollo 17 regions. They could be well-suited for visits by robots and human explorers in efforts to learn how to live off the land on the moon,” said Jim Garvin, chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Garvin is principal investigator for the project.
“While it will require many months before fully quantitative results can be developed, we already have evidence that these new observations will improve the precision by which we can understand materials such as ilmenite to help better inform exploration decisions,” Garvin said.
Hubble’s lunar observation analysis team included colleagues from Goddard and Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.; Brown University, Providence, R.I.; Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.; the University of Pittsburgh.; and the University of Hawaii, Manoa.
The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. It is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., Washington, under contract with Goddard.
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