To the Moon: Alumnus Develops Technology to Explore Moon for Water and More

Only four decades ago the science of space exploration riled the country to a palpable awe as citizens watched men walking on the moon. Incredibly, that achievement was still only “one small step.” Getting to the moon and back is still stymied by many of the challenges NASA teams faced in 1969. This has left much of the moon unexplored—something that nagged at Bard College at Simon’s Rock alumnus Luke Sollitt, who has long felt that the moon has yet to give us all of her answers.

A co-investigator on the NASA team that launched the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), Sollitt has found a way to help reveal some of those answers. Amazingly, what would become the LCROSS mission began as an idea that Sollitt conjured in graduate school. “I wanted to use microprobes to look for water in the permanently shadowed craters at the lunar south pole,” he explains. “When I got to Northrop Grumman, I shopped the idea around, and generated some interest. Another scientist at NG joined me in working on the concept, and suggested an alternate approach...I helped flesh it out and wrote the first white paper.”

Now, three and a half years later, what began as a white paper concept is orbiting the earth and priming for an October 3 landing on the moon’s lunar south pole. Practically speaking, the mission is purposed to look for evidence of ice—pointing to the existence of water on Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor. A hydrogen or ice discovery would not only help humanity but change the way that we think about further scientific sights. That’s exciting, yes. But Sollitt and the team are equally enthused about the other questions this mission will likely help to answer.

Moon Mapping

As it turns out so much of what we know about the moon was born from evidence based on collections of earlier lunar landings, all situated in an area called the Procellarum Kreep Terrane (PKT). “The PKT is actually a compositional anomaly,” he says. “Most of the lunar surface is compositionally different, and unexplored. The current mission calls for a permanently manned base at the south lunar pole.”

So, part of what the team is looking to establish is long view data that the LRO will collect as it maps the moon in incredibly high detail, including doing composition, 3D topography, radiation, and more—“truly high definition lunar science,” Sollitt exclaims. With this data, he’s confident that we’ll discover as much about the Moon as we will about Earth’s own early history. “Because Earth's long-term history is obscured by an active surface, and the Moon's history is plain for all to see—impact cratering is the dominant geological process on its surface, and is the most important part of understanding the evolution of the Solar System.”

Already, with more minimal research established because of earlier lunar landings, researchers have found that the impact rate (as measured by craters) decreased for billions of years and then increased about 400 million years ago, “roughly the date of the Cambrian explosion of life on Earth,” Sollitt explains. “Prior to this time, the number of species was pretty low. Suddenly, a great many more species developed, and one had the rapid evolution of invertebrate life and later vertebrates. So what Apollo might be telling us, 35 years later, is that the Cambrian explosion on Earth may well be due to added stress on Earth's ecosystem thanks to increased impact rates.” He adds, “Not bad for a mission that spend a day and a half on the lunar surface.”

Stepping Stones

Even with this kind of scientific promise bound for discovery, the American space ambition is hyper focused on manning a mission to Mars, begging the question, even when a moon mission launches, “but what about Mars?”

As Sollitt sees it, this isn’t even in the realm of probabilities without more landing experience and total time in space. “A Mars mission is likely to last 500 days. Humans have spent on the order of a couple hundred man-hours in suits on a planetary surface; a mission to Mars will require thousands of hours. Going to the moon makes sense as a stepping stone to build operational experience before we go after the big one.” And it’s not only beneficial in terms of clocking man hours in space, the moon missions will help to work out the environmental kinks that are likely to be huge factors when on Mars like dealing with dust, which can wear down moving parts, suit joints, and fabric.

Whether the moon missions reveal findings that point to the origins of life on Earth or help us shoot for bigger steps towards places like Mars, Sollitt underscores the bottom line: There is scientific value associated with all of these launches. Because, he says, moon exploration doesn’t just teach us about the moon, “it betters our understanding the entire planet as a system.”