NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has been beaming over images of the moon that will give the space agency an idea of which regions are worth exploring first. It was this kind of imaging from Apollo 8 and Apollo 10 that determined the Apollo 11 landing site. While a decision still seems light-years away, one thing we do know is that this wont’ be an Apollo mission redux.
LRO project scientist Noah Petro recently told Seeker that NASA “has its eyes on new terrain” because the Apollo landing sites have become culturally significant zones that it wants to preserve. That means there are still 24 million miles of lunar surface to explore.
With exponentially more advanced technology than anything we had in 1969, LRO can determine which locations will give us more of a touchdown than a crash landing, which is why it has flown over some potential landing spots while the sun was at varying altitudes in the sky. 3D views of the surface are also possible when the craft uses stereo images.
Any area with water ice interests NASA and commercial companies because of its potential to be a mining zone where that ice can be extracted to keep astronauts hydrated in its liquid water form and fuel spacecraft through the process of electrolysis, which divides it into its components of hydrogen and oxygen. It sounds like a new frontier until you realize that most of these zones are hiding in permanent shadow. This inhibits the power generation that will be necessary for such mining to begin with.
The dark side of the moon may not be the ideal place for mining, but it has a few potential scientific research zones that are blocked from any radio interference on our planet. Lunar caves can also provide radiation shielding, except that most of them are pretty treacherous for humans and even rovers on the inside.
Lunar volcanoes that erupted billions of years ago are also a prospect LRO is seriously looking at.
“We've identified a wide range of volcanic features," Petro 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."
Wherever the next astro-boot ends up stepping on the moon, that will still be the first print in the lunar dust since 1972.