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The moon has tattoos, and NASA wants to know what they mean

Contributed by
Sep 8, 2017, 4:28 PM EDT

It might not have gotten them on a crazy night in Vegas, but the moon is covered in mystic swirls that could pass for tattoos.

While we know what they aren’t, NASA wants to find out exactly what these lunar markings are. The agency’s Bi-sat Observations of the Lunar Atmosphere above Swirls (BOLAS) mission concept will use two shoebox-size CubeSats tethered 118 miles and six miles above the moon’s surface to potentially demystify the swirls.

BOLAS is one of 10 CubeSat concepts NASA is investing in. Launching a lone satellite to orbit the moon six miles from the surface would leave it at the mercy of our satellite’s unpredictable gravity, which could push and pull it out of orbit and require it to burn a ridiculous amount of fuel over an extended period. It also risks smashing into the surface—which was almost the fate of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO)—if it doesn’t escape the grip of gravity fast enough. NASA needed to maneuver the orbiter to keep it from being turned into space junk. Lunar data that would otherwise be out of reach may now illuminate what could be causing those mysterious moon tattoos.


Rendering of the two tethered BOLAS CubeSats.

“The tension in the tether keeps the CubeSats in vertical alignment as they orbit,” said BOLAS principal investigator Timothy Stubbs. “The configuration, with the center-of-mass in a quasi-stable orbit, should enable the lower CubeSat to fly for long durations at low altitudes.”

Even scientists can’t agree how exactly the moon got ink done. There are almost as many theories about how magnetic fields come into being, how magnetic material moves along the surface as there are far-out designs. Why the swirls aren’t as weathered as the surrounding areas is another enigma. What we do know from previous observations is that they are found wherever there are remnants of ancient magnetic fields. Some believe that magnetic material which creates magnetic fields came from comets. Magnetic fields are thought to shield the surface from atmosphere-stripping solar winds and keep the “tattoos” from fading.

The BOLAS mission will be able explore the swirls in more depth than LRO, which added evidence to but was never able to prove the magnetic shield theory. NASA will need to get measurements as close to the surface as possible to shed light on a phenomenon this nebulous. NASA scientists are optimistic about the mission’s potential to tell us things that LRO could only dream of.


“This could be a paradigm shift,” said BOLAS co-investigator Michael Collier. “All indications show that this mission can be done with existing technology.”

Lunar hydrogen that could eventually be used to fuel high-powered rockets will also be studied by BOLAS, which will investigate how various mechanisms could implant hydrogen on the surface of the moon and which physical features and other factors they would depend on. CubeSat technology is also taking off with advances in both Earth and space observations.

I still think it would be beyond cool to walk into a tattoo parlor and, instead of asking for the same thing on some celebrity’s arm, say you want a design just like the moon’s. 

(via NBC Mach)

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