New paper calls for human lunar exploration

Renewed commitment required to further understanding of the Moon's origin and evolution

Professor Ian Crawford, from Birkbeck’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and a colleague from the University of Manchester have published a paper in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, calling for renewed human operations on the surface of the Moon.

The paper, entitled ‘Lunar exploration: opening a window into the history and evolution of the inner Solar System’, reviews lunar exploration to date and describes how future activities will further advance our understanding of the origin and evolution of the Moon, the Earth-Moon system and the solar system more generally.

Since the first Soviet spacecraft reached the Moon on 13 September 1959, over 40 missions from various countries have been launched to the Moon. However, the USA’s Apollo programme, which ran from 1969 – 1972, was one of the most important in terms of its scientific legacy. During the Apollo missions astronauts traversed a total distance of 95.5km from their landing sites, collected and returned to the Earth 382 kg of rock and soil samples, drilled three sample cores to depths of 2–3 m, obtained over 6000 surface images, and deployed over 2100 kg of scientific equipment. The lunar samples and data collected by the astronauts, as well as those subsequently collected by robotic missions, provide a rich archive of the history of the inner solar system, the geological evolution of rocky planets and our local cosmic environment.

Professor Crawford argues that while planned robotic missions to the Moon will play a valuable role in increasing our understanding of these areas, human exploration would offer significant scientific advantages, as robotic missions are limited in terms of their mobility once on the Moon’s surface, the complexity of the instruments that they can deploy, the level of drilling they can implement and the samples they can return with.

Professor Crawford says: “To further our understanding of the origin and evolution of the Moon and our solar system will require a renewed commitment to lunar exploration, with new generation scientific instruments placed on the Moon’s surface, and additional samples being returned. A more ambitious programme of lunar exploration than that which is currently planned will be required in order to access the full potential of the lunar geological record.”

Dr Crawford continues: “In 2007, 14 of the world’s space agencies produced the Global Exploration Strategy, laying the foundation for an ambitious, global space exploration programme. If the Global Exploration Roadmap outlined in the strategy is successfully implemented over the next 25 years, I believe that the use of human and robotic exploration of the inner solar system will lead to an increased understanding of the origin and evolution of the Earth–Moon system.”

[Image: Charles 'Pete' Conrad, Commander of Apollo 12, stands next to Surveyor III in November 1969. Surveyor III had landed two and a half years earlier in April 1967; the Apollo 12 Lunar Module is in the background. As this image makes clear, astronauts are much more versatile than robots, and Professor Crawford argues that returning  humans to the lunar surface will result in numerous scientific benefits. (NASA image AS12-48-7134).]