The prospect of mining asteroids and the Moon is on a lot of peoples’ minds lately. Maybe it’s all the growth that’s happened in the commercial aerospace industry in the past few decades. Or perhaps it’s because of Trump’s recent executive order to allow for asteroid and lunar mining. Either way, there is no shortage of entrepreneurs and futurists who can’t wait to start prospecting and harvest the natural bounty of space!
Coincidentally enough, future lunar miners now have a complete map of the lunar surface, which was created by the US Geological Society’s (USGS) Astrogeology Science Center, in collaboration with NASA and the Lunar Planetary Institute (LPI). This map shows the distribution and classification of the mineral deposits on the Moon’s surface, effectively letting us know what its familiar patchwork of light and dark patches the really are.
Known as the “Unified Geologic Map of the Moon,” this immensely-detailed 1:5,000,000 scale map is available online and is intended for use by the scientific community, educators, and the general public. In addition, the USGS states that it will serve as a “definitive blueprint of the moon’s surface geology for future human missions.”
Said current USGS Director and former NASA astronaut Jim Reilly in a USGS statement:
“People have always been fascinated by the moon and when we might return. So, it’s wonderful to see USGS create a resource that can help NASA with their planning for future missions.”
To create the new digital map, scientists at the USGS synthesized data from six of the Apollo missions along with updated information from recent satellite missions. These include the Wide Angle Camera (WAC) element of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC), as well as its Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) – which gathered images and topographical data on the Moon during the LRO’s ten-year mission.
Then there was the elevation data of the moon’s equatorial region, which was obtained by the Terrain Camera on JAXA’s SELenological and Engineering ExpLorEr (SELENE). Also known as Kaguya, this recent mission conducted stereo observations of the Moon’s equatorial region. Mission data was from both missions was used to update the northern and southern polar regions of the Moon.
In addition to merging new data and old, the USGS researchers also developed a unified description of the rock layers on the Moon (aka. stratigraphy). This resolved issues with previous maps, which included inconsistencies with names, descriptions, and ages. Said Corey Fortezzo, USGS geologist and the lead author of the study describing the map:
“This map is a culmination of a decades-long project. It provides vital information for new scientific studies by connecting the exploration of specific sites on the moon with the rest of the lunar surface.”
The research that led to this map was made possible due to a grant issued by the NASA Planetary Data Archiving, Restoration, and Tools (PDART) program. In the coming years, the data contained within is likely to inform surface operations for Project Artemis, which are scheduled to begin in 2024 with the Artemis III mission.
This will be the first time that astronauts have gone to the Moon since the Apollo era. But unlike the heady days of the Space Race, NASA is intent on establishing a program for “sustainable lunar exploration” this time around, which includes elements that will allow for a permanent human presence on the Moon – like the Lunar Gateway and the Lunar Base Camp.
Commercial access to the Moon has been an important part of this plan from the beginning. In addition to partnering with aerospace companies to develop these and other elements that will make future missions to the Moon possible, NASA’s long-term plans include partnering with other space agencies and companies so that they can use this same infrastructure to facilitate their own missions and goals.
On top of that, the legal precedents for commercial ventures on the Moon began before the executive order, titled “Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources.” In 2015, the Obama administration signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act into law to “facilitate a pro-growth environment for the developing commercial space industry.”
Now that companies and individual citizens have the right to claim, own, and sell resources that they extract from asteroids and other celestial bodies, a comprehensive map of where those resources are (at least on the Moon) is going to come in mighty handy! In the meantime, it is one heck of a scientific and educational resource and is likely to lead to some exciting breakthroughs in astrogeological research.