Artemis Astronauts Will Deploy New Seismometers on the Moon

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Apollo astronauts set up a collection of lunar seismometers to detect possible Moon quakes. These instruments monitored lunar activity for eight years and gave planetary scientists an indirect glimpse into the Moon’s interior. Now, researchers are developing new methods for lunar quake detection techniques and technologies. If all goes well, the Artemis astronauts will deploy them when they return to the Moon.

Fiber optic cable is the heart of a seismology network to be deployed on the Moon by future Artemis astronauts.

The new approach, called distributed acoustic sensing (DAS), is the brainchild of CalTech geophysics professor Zhongwen Zhan. It sends laser beams through a fiber optic cable buried just below the surface. Instruments at either end measure how the laser light changes during the shake-induced tremors. Basically Zhan’s plan turns the cable into a sequence of hundreds of individual seismometers. That gives precise information about the strength and timing of the tremors. Amazingly, a 100-kilometer fiber optic cable would function as the equivalent of 10,000 seismometers. This cuts down on the number of individual seismic instruments astronauts would have to deploy. It probably also affords some cost savings as well.

A seismometer station deployed on the Moon during the Apollo 15 mission. Courtesy NASA.

DAS and Apollo on the Moon

Compare DAS the Apollo mission seismometer data and it becomes obvious very quickly that DAS is a vast improvement. In the Apollo days, the small collection of instruments left behind on the Moon provided information that was “noisy”. Essentially, when the seismic waves traveled through different parts of the lunar structure, they got scattered. This was particularly true when they encountered the dusty surface layer. The “noise” basically muddied up the signals.

The layout for the Apollo Lunar Seismic Profiling Experiment for the Apollo 17 mission. Courtesy Nunn, et al.

What DAS Does to Detect Quakes on the Moon

The DAS system stations laser emitters and data collectors at each end of a fiber optic cable. This allows for multiple widely spaced installations that measure light as it transits the network. The cable consists of glass strands, and each strand contains tiny imperfections. That sounds bad, but each imperfection provides a useful “waypoint” that reflects a little bit of the light back to the source. That information gets recorded as part of a larger data set. Setting up such a system of telecommunications cables over a large area provides millions of waypoints that scientists can use to measure seismic movements on Earth.

A recent study led by CalTech postdoctoral researcher Qiushi Zhai deployed this type of DAS-enabled fiber optic cable system in Antarctica. The conditions mimic some of the environmental challenges of a lunar deployment—it’s freezing cold, very dry, and far removed from human activities. The sensors measured the small movements of caused by ice cracking and moving around. Those types of signals are perfect analogs to lunar quakes.

Aerial view of Antarctica. A prototype of the lunar DAS system for the Artemis missions to the Moon detected tiny tremors from ice movements here. Photo credit: L. McFadden 2008

Measuring a Lunar Quake Using DAS

Since DAS works well measuring tiny tremors induced by ice, it seems like the perfect “next step” in doing lunar seismology. On the Moon, the fiber optic cable would be buried (just as cables are on Earth) a few centimeters below the level of the regolith. It will sit there waiting for the next quake, which probably won’t take long, since the Moon seems to quiver frequently. When one strikes, its seismic waves will move through the ground from the source. They’ll wiggle the cable. That will affect the light-travel path inside. The actions of light hitting thousands of imperfections inside the cable will provide lunar geologists with high-precision data about moonquakes. That includes their origins, travel time, and other aspects of the wave that will help them understand more about the lunar structure they travel through.

The distributed nature of the seismic network will have a big advantage over the Apollo-style individual seismometers used in the past. And, there are other reasons to use DAS, according to Zhai. “Another advantage of using DAS on the Moon is that a fiber optic cable is physically quite resilient to the harsh lunar environment: high radiation, extreme temperatures, and heavy dust,” Zhai said.

Moon Structure and DAS

Zhai is the first author of a paper describing the DAS system, which should allow scientists to detect close to 100 percent of Moon tremors. The paper offers insight into the advantages that DAS offers. In particular, such an array stretched across large areas of the Moon should provide much higher-quality data about even the smallest tremors that shake the surface.

Since the Moon is not tectonically active, its quakes don’t occur from the same causes as they do on Earth. Some happen during the sunset/sunrise period when temperature changes affect the surface. Others happen thanks to Earth’s pull on the Moon, and still others occur because the Moon is still cooling and contracting. Zhai’s paper suggests that DAS could detect about 15 moonquakes per day, and perhaps help better characterize the thermal moonquakes that happen at sunrise/sunset and the deeper ones that occur during perigee and apogee portions of its orbit, and those intrinsic to the Moon’s contraction. In addition, impacts on the Moon also generate quakes. Information about all these events should give planetary scientists a big leg up on understanding more about the lunar interior structure.

The deployment of DAS and other science experiments will be part of the surface operations of the Artemis missions. It will be part of one of the proposed seven-month stays for astronaut teams. Although there is no specific planned date for seismometer deployment, it’s likely to take place no sooner than the mid-2030s. That’s after the planned missions to build shelters, deploy power stations, and other activities to create the lunar bases.

For More Information

A New Type of Seismic Sensor to Detect Moonquakes
Assessing the feasibility of Distributed Acoustic Sensing (DAS) for Moonquake Detection
Lunar Seismology: A Data and Instrumentation Review

Carolyn Collins Petersen

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