In the past few months, the Trump administration tasked NASA with going back to the moon before attempting to land humans on Mars. The first missions won't happen until at least the 2020s, but the agency is already getting started. It recently held meetings with commercial companies that are interested in landing rovers and spacecraft on the surface.
'No shortage of information'
Noah Petro, the project scientist for LRO, told Seeker that NASA and lunar scientists already have some lunar landing zones identified. LRO has nine years of data from its science mission at the moon, and many more years are expected, Petro said. "We have no shortage of information of what we anticipate to be at the surface of almost every location of the moon," he said.
LRO has passed some locations while the sun was at different altitudes in the sky, providing a better sense of how treacherous the surface might be for a landing. The craft even caught stereo images of a few locations, which provide 3D views of the surface.
Petro recently co-authored a study with Apollo 17 geologist and astronaut Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, who said he was in awe of LRO's capabilities. Back in the days of Apollo, usually one mission would image the surface in anticipation of future landings. For example, Apollo 8 and Apollo 10 imaged what ended up being the Apollo 11 landing site, Petro said.
Where to go first?
While the moon has a smaller surface area than Asia, our neighbor still has an astounding 38.7 million kilometers (24 million miles) to explore, according to NASA. So which locations does NASA see as a priority?
Petro said it's hard to say where future explorers will go first, because scientific priorities change, but he gave a few ideas on possible landing areas.
One thought would be landing in a place where volatiles are present. In other words, zones where water ice may be on the surface. It could be a perfect spot for mining water for machines and people, depending on how much ice is present. The caveat is these zones tend to be in permanent shadow, making it difficult to generate power and warmth.
If the goal of the mission is to perform astronomy, there are zones on the far side of the moon that would be permanently shielded from radio interference on Earth. Or if protecting humans from radiation is the main concern, it's possible that future missions may want to land near some possible caves on the surface. But Petro said the caves probably have rough terrain inside, making them difficult to explore on foot or using rovers.
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Some of the Apollo missions, including Apollo 17, searched for signs of volcanic features on the surface. That's also a priority of LRO, Petro said. "We've identified a wide range of volcanic features," he said. "The great thing about those is
they show us more about the interior of the moon and its thermal history, and there is definitely no shortage of interesting volcanic features all across the moon — far side and near side."
Would NASA visit the six sites that humans visited between 1969 and 1972, during Apollos 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17? Petro said the agency "has its eyes on new terrain" because it views these sites as zones of cultural importance that they would like to preserve.
Some commercial companies, however, may return to these sites to look at the machinery there. These firms are interested in how well the rovers and landers and other equipment held up after nearly five decades on the surface, Petro said.
You can read more about LRO's latest findings at NASA's website.