Astronauts may next explore the moon in a Lunar Electric Rover (above) developed by NASA. About the size of a pickup truck, it can house two astronauts for up to 14 days with sleeping and sanitary facilities. Credit: NASA/Regan Geeseman

‘When you think of the moon, you’ll think of Brown’

Brown geologists have been chosen by NASA to have a major role in putting humans back on the moon by 2020.
By Richard C. Lewis  |  January 21, 2009  |  Email to a friend

NASA has chosen Brown’s Department of Geological Sciences to be part of the agency’s Lunar Science Institute, whose mission is to prepare humans and robots to return to the moon in the coming decade. Announcement of the virtual center, a partnership between Brown and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, comes as NASA prepares to launch the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) in April, the first in a string of planned robotic, and ultimately human, missions to Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor.

Carle Pieters:   Carle Pieters Carle Pieters, professor of geological sciences, has been named the team’s principal investigator. Also involved is Maria Zuber, who earned her Ph.D. in geophysics from Brown and heads the Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences department at MIT.

NASA halted the successful Apollo moon landing program in the early 1970s, and no American has set foot on lunar soil since. While the agency has sent a few orbiting probes to the moon in the intervening decades, its attention has shifted to other planets, notably Mars.

“We need to reintroduce the moon to a whole new generation of students,” says Michael Wyatt, deputy principal investigator for the team and an assistant professor of geological sciences.

The lunar research team is formally called “The Moon as Cornerstone to the Terrestrial Planets: The Formative Years.” It includes faculty from three groups in geological sciences: planetary sciences; geochemistry, mineralogy, and petrology; and geophysics. NASA will fund the center for four years. “We will be addressing the moon as a fundamental basis for understanding the early history of the solar system,” Wyatt explains.

Michael Wyatt:   Michael Wyatt The Brown/MIT team is one of seven academic and research teams selected by NASA from 33 proposals, according to the agency. Wyatt says the group will concentrate on hiring postdoctoral researchers to work at Brown and MIT, funding graduate students interested in lunar research, providing money for summer research and workshops for undergraduate students, expanding courses on lunar science, and bringing experts on the moon to Brown.

“We look forward to solid contributions from these teams,” says Jim Green, director of the planetary division at NASA headquarters in Washington. “They will be vital to NASA’s successfully conducting the ambitious activities of returning to the moon with robots and humans.”

Brown learned it had been selected when geological sciences professor Jack Mustard, in Washington for a Mars mission meeting in early January, heard of Brown’s inclusion and sent a text message.

“We knew we had a good proposal,” Wyatt says. “We knew there would be a lot of competition. The hard part was coming up with a focused set of questions to address rather than saying, ‘We do good work; give us money.’”

Now comes the work of creating a think tank devoted to lunar science and cultivating the next crop of moon scholars. “What we hope,” Wyatt says, “is that when people think of the moon, they think of Brown.”