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Areas of Ames Ingenuity: Lunar Science
A collage of images of and from the moon.

About lunar science

Rediscovering our moon.


The moon
An orange-colored moon seen during an eclipse.
The moon has long beguiled humans, calling to us as our nearest celestial neighbor. Forty years after humans walked on the lunar surface during the Apollo missions, NASA is conducting its most intensive study ever of the moon. What we are finding is that our moon is not the dead world long depicted in textbooks.

Recent findings have shown significant amounts of water ice on the lunar surface, particularly in permanently shadowed craters near the lunar poles. The gravity field of the moon is being explored through twin orbiting spacecraft. In 2013, NASA’s next lunar robotic mission will measure the tenuous lunar atmosphere and characterize the dust environment. This new generation of lunar research will pave the way for humankind’s eventual return to the moon.

Ames' role

Ames has a long and successful history in managing NASA lunar missions, and in catalyzing lunar science research. These missions have fundamentally changed our view of the Moon – and its potential resources.

Lunar Prospector, launched in 1998 as the third Discovery-class mission, orbited the Moon to conduct an 18-month mission dedicated to obtaining global maps of lunar resources, and measuring the lunar gravity and magnetic fields. At a cost of only $63 million, Lunar Prospector measured hydrogen signatures at the lunar poles, providing suggestive hints that water could exist on the Moon.

This important result was confirmed a decade later when the $80 million Lunar Crater Sensing and Observations Satellite (LCROSS), another Ames-led mission, used a spent upper stage rocket as an impactor and a trailing spacecraft with nine science instruments to measure significant water deposits in permanently shadowed craters near the lunar South Pole.

NASA’s next mission to the Moon, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), will also be managed by Ames. LADEE will fly in a low orbit about the Moon and characterize the very thin lunar atmosphere and dust environment. Ames is also building the Ultraviolet/Visible Spectrometer, one of the three science instruments aboard LADEE.

Ames Research Center is the host for the NASA Lunar Science Institute, a virtual institute designed to catalyze interdisciplinary lunar research from around the country and throughout the world.

Featured example: LADEE enhances our understanding the lunar atmosphere

Could lofted dust be a problem when astronauts eventually return to the moon for extended visits?

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a computer-generated model of the LADEE spacecraft in front of the moon Could lofted dust be a problem when astronauts eventually return to the moon for extended visits? When launched in 2013, LADEE will use three scientific instruments to answer this unresolved question dating from the Apollo era, and to characterize the tenuous lunar atmosphere before astronauts return to the Moon someday. LADEE will determine the global density, composition, and time variability of the fragile lunar atmosphere before it is perturbed by further human activity.

Flying at altitudes of only 50 km above the lunar surface, LADEE will determine if the Apollo astronaut sightings of diffuse emission tens of kilometers above the surface were produced by sodium atoms or by dust. The spacecraft will measure the size and frequency of dust particles to help guide design engineering for future robotic missions to the Moon – and an eventual lunar outpost.

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Featured example: LCROSS and Lunar Prospector find water on the moon

How have Ames lunar missions fundamentally changed our view of the moon – and its potential resources?

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An artist’s depiction of the Centaur upper stage rocket being released from the LCROSS spacecraft, on its way to impact in Cabeus crater near the moon’s south pole. Ames led the design, development and operations of LCROSS, a secondary payload launched with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2009. All nine of the LCROSS science instruments, based on commercial “off-the-shelf” components, were designed and developed at Ames. LCROSS was an innovative low-cost mission that converted a rocket connector ring into a spacecraft, and used a spent rocket stage as an impactor.

The spent Centaur rocket was impacted into a permanently shadowed region of Cabeus crater near the lunar South Pole. A trailing shepherding spacecraft flew through the debris and discovered significant amounts of water vapor and ice, fundamentally changing our view of the moon – and its potential resources.

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Featured example: NASA Lunar Science Institute bridges communities

How is an Ames-founded virtual institute working on questions of fundamental importance to understanding our nearest neighbor?

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the logo of the NASA Lunar Science Institute Founded by NASA Ames, the NLSI focuses a community of research teams on questions of fundamental importance in understanding our nearest neighbor. Established in 2008, the NLSI is a "virtual institute" that oversees the operation of several competitively selected research teams distributed across the U.S. and a growing number of international partners. NLSI research focuses on questions of fundamental importance in understanding the formation, evolution, composition and potential of the moon, while bridging NASA’s science and exploration communities.

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