One of my most vivid childhood memories is standing in the driveway of my parents’ central Massachusetts home in the middle of a winter night while looking at the Moon through a small telescope with my father. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was, in a sense, doing remote sensing—making a measurement of the lunar surface without actually being there. That’s one of several childhood moments that solidified my love of science and my interest in exploring the solar system.
We are fortunate to live in an age of exhilarating space exploration. NASA currently plans to send humans to a near-Earth asteroid in the 2020’s, but robotic exploration of the solar system proceeds at an astounding pace. While many of us are familiar with the amazing images returned from spacecraft exploring the solar system (like this, and this, and this!), spacecraft also send back other types of data that are equally important. Spectral data consisting of light coming from a planetary surface are commonly acquired in many wavelengths. These data provide detailed information about the Moon, asteroids, and other bodies. When combined with high resolution imagery, we can start to unravel the geologic histories of the planetary bodies in which we’re interested. These data acquired by robotic orbiters and landers are especially important given the high costs and risks associated with human exploration. Remotely acquired data pave the way for human exploration by providing global and local scale geologic context and identifying safety hazards and potential resources for use by human astronauts.
As with most things in science, the devil is in the details when trying to interpret the data returned from spacecraft. One of the most important processes that affect objects in space is called space weathering. Space weathering is the collective term for a group of processes that affects the surfaces of airless bodies in the solar system. The interaction of micrometeorites and the solar wind with planetary surfaces causes profound changes in the data that we acquire. A major goal of the RIS4E team is to understand these processes in much more detail by performing complex experiments. We will create minerals with similar compositions to lunar materials and subject them to similar conditions that these materials would experience in space. We will then be able to analyze the samples in extremely fine detail using new state of the art facilities at Brookhaven National Laboratory’s National Synchrotron Light Source II. Our goal is to understand what types of changes are happening to minerals on the lunar and asteroid surfaces as a result of space weathering and tie those changes to the data that we acquire so that we can better interpret them.
Over the coming months and years RIS4E team members, including myself, will be providing more details on this work as our research progresses. Please stay tuned!