Wash U. Aims for the Moon by 2019
|That dark area on the lower left is the South Pole-Aitken Basin, where Wash. U. researchers hope to send a probe sometime this decade.|
Led by Bradley Jolliff, a professor of earth and planetary science, MoonRise will send a robot-controlled probe to the moon, where it will pick up about two pounds of moon rocks from the South Pole-Aitken Basin and bring them back to Earth for further study.
"The samples would provide new insight into the early history of the Earth-Moon system," Jolliff said in a press release. The basin is actually an impact crater, the largest and oldest on the moon's surface. (It is even visible from Earth.) It was formed when some object -- nobody is sure what -- struck the moon, very hard.
"Determining the age of rocks formed during the impact event will allow scientists to test hypotheses for the cause and source of such giant impactors during the planets' formative years," Jolliff explained. "The samples would also illuminate processes by which the crusts of planets form and by which giant impacts alter them."
MoonRise will be competing with two other projects for approximately $650 million in funding. One project, from the University of Arizona-Tucson, will collect samples from an asteroid; the other, from the University of Colorado-Boulder, will probe the atmosphere and surface of Venus.
This year, NASA will give each of the three projects $3.3 million to conduct a twelve-month study and describe the proposals in more detail. NASA will announce the winner in 2011, and the project will launch sometime before 2019.
Jolliff told the Post-Dispatch: "Determining the age of [the South Pole-Aitken Basin] and the ages of other large craters within it will answer the question of the so-called impact cataclysm and teach us much about the deep crust of the moon that is unavailable from other lunar samples."
He did not say whether he planned to give one of the moon rocks to Joe Edwards to display in the Moonrise Hotel.