Tuesday, August 30, 2022

As NASA prepares to send its first rocket toward the Moon in nearly 50 years, a University of Iowa researcher is among the lead scientists on a separate robotic mission to our dusty, gray neighbor.

Jasper Halekas, Professor of Physics and Astronomy, is deputy principal investigator for the Lunar Vertex project. It will send a space probe to an area of the Moon where there’s a strong magnetic field as well as a mysterious swirl of both very light and very dark soils.

“We don’t know where that magnetic field came from and we don’t know where this swirl marking came from,” Halekas says. “We think they’re related to each other though, so we’re going to send a suite of charged particle, magnetic field, and investigations of the surface to this location to try and understand what’s going on there.”

The Lunar Vertex spacecraft, due for launch in 2024, will include a rover that will explore the Moon’s surface. On Monday, NASA had to scrub the scheduled launch of its unmanned Artemis One rocket due to an engine problem. It may be able to lift-off as soon as Friday on a planned 42-day mission.

It’s NASA’s first significant rocket launch since the space shuttle program was retired 11 years ago and it’s the first moonshot since the 1970s. “It’s really, we hope, the beginning of a new era of human exploration,” Halekas says. “This Artemis One mission will be uncrewed. It will go and it will orbit around the moon and come back, but it’s a precursor to Artemis Two and Artemis Three. With Artemis Two, we’ll have a similar mission but with crew onboard, and with Artemis Three, we’ll actually take the crew to the lunar surface.”

In Greek mythology, Artemis is the twin sister of Apollo, which was the name of the successful Moon missions of the 1960s and ’70s. Some may question why we’re planning to invest so much money to return to the Moon, but Halekas says NASA spending is only three-tenths of one-percent of the national budget, versus 13-percent for the military. “We don’t actually spend that much on NASA and we get a lot back for what we spend there,” Halekas says. “There have been various estimates of the economic return on NASA spending and those estimates come in between seven-to-one and even up to 40-to-one of how much of a return we’re getting on that investment.”

From huge evolutions in medical care to TV remote controls and even microwave ovens, many of the modern pleasures we enjoy today have their roots in the American space program. “If you just look around in everyday life, you’ll see all kinds of spin-offs from NASA technology, everything from the camera in your smartphone to freeze-dried food to GPS,” Halekas says. “It permeates our everyday life and our existence, the technological benefits that we’ve gotten directly and indirectly from NASA.”

The Artemis missions are exciting, he says, as they’re just the first steps toward building a permanent base on the Moon which could be used as the launch pad for crewed missions to Mars. Iowa astronaut Raja Chari, a Cedar Falls native, is part of the Artemis team and could  be among the first Americans to again make bootprints in lunar dust.

By Matt Kelly, Radio Iowa