Carle Pieters, left, of Brown and Robert Green of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory donned protective suits while showing off their state-of-the-art imaging spectrometer before its lunar voyage.

An up-close look at the moon

Professor Carle Pieters’s high-resolution spectrometer will send back lunar surface images in unprecedented detail.
By Richard C. Lewis  |  October 20, 2008  |  Email to a friend
A Brown University scientist is helping India on its first-ever trip to the moon, a mission that may yield some of the most detailed and comprehensive lunar surface images to date.

Carle Pieters, professor of geological sciences, is the principal investigator for one of the instruments that was carried aboard the Chandrayaan-1 rocket, India’s highly anticipated delivery of an unmanned spacecraft to orbit and survey the moon. The rocket carrying the spacecraft was launched on October 22.

The equipment that Pieters oversees is called the moon mineralogy mapper (M3), one of two NASA-designed instruments that will be carried by the Indian rocket. (There are 11 instruments aboard in all.) The M3 is a state-of-the-art imaging spectrometer that will provide the first map of the entire lunar surface at high spatial and spectral resolution.

Carle Pieters: Carle Pieters What that means, Pieters explains, is a more complete picture of what makes up the moon. The detail will be stunning: From its vantage point 100 kilometers (60 miles) above the surface, M3 will be able to resolve features as small as 230 feet in diameter. The instrument’s capability will bring into sharper relief the mountains, craters, plains, and other features of the entire moon, rather than isolated areas as in previous moon missions.

The craft will be in orbit for two years. “There’ll be this firehose of data,” Pieters predicts.

The M3 also will detect minerals, which will help scientists understand how the moon formed and evolved. To do that, the instrument will take 261 pictures simultaneously, each filtered in its own “color.” Scientists use these pictures (and the pixels in them) to produce a spectrum from which they can identify a mineral based on its brightness or darkness.

“It’s a complicated instrument,” Pieters says, “but the quality is superb. We’ve never had an instrument with such high resolution.”

Unlike previous lunar spectrometers, the M3 has a range known to reveal signatures of the building blocks of water (such as OH) or water itself, which may exist in permanently shadowed craters on the Moon. If water ice is found, it will greatly improve the prospect of sending humans for an extended stay.

India’s expedition comes amid a surge in Asian space exploration. China staged its first spacewalk in September. Japan’s Kaguya orbiter is sending back high-definition footage of the moon and conducting various experiments.

NASA, which sent teams of astronauts to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, plans to reignite its lunar program with the expected launch next year of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, billed as the first step toward returning Americans to the Moon.

The moon is of great interest to scientists because it offers clues to how planetary bodies form and may offer insight into the Earth’s history.