OSB archive
OSB archive

On a virtual Moon mission

Pete Wilton

I’ve been looking to write about Moon Zoo for a while now: it’s a new citizen science project that enables web users to become virtual lunar explorers.

Visitors to the site get the chance to examine the lunar surface in unprecedented detail, thanks to new high-resolution images taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter [LRO].

And, like Galaxy Zoo, users don’t just get the chance to spot things that have never been seen before - everything from lost Russian spacecraft to previously unseen geological features -  they help to answer vital scientific questions.

In fact the Moon’s history is written on its surface: by counting craters visitors will make it possible to determine how old a particular region is and the depth of the lunar ‘soil’ (regolith). Finding fresh craters left by recent impacts could also tell us a lot about the risk of meteor strikes here on Earth.

And understanding craters will be vital for any return to our nearest neighbour:

‘There’s tremendous variation in the Moon’s craters from faint old ones you can hardly see to fresh new ones that sparkle in the sunlight,’ Moon Zoo team leader Chris Lintott, of Oxford University’s Department of Physics, tells me.

‘If we’re to identify safe landing sites for future missions it’s vital that we know about craters with boulders and where meteors have smashed though the lunar surface creating large holes that would make landing a spacecraft very difficult.’

The lunar surface also holds a unique record of previous missions.

Not only can users browse unseen images of the Apollo landing sites, spotting abandoned rovers and equipment and trails left by the astronauts, but they could stumble across lost Russian spacecraft - such as Luna 9 and Luna 13 - that crash landed on the Moon but have never been found.

As you can see from the image gallery above, captioned by Rob Simpson of Oxford’s Department of Physics, visitors are already alerting the team to some fascinating images of rolling boulders, vast pits, and possible lava flows. You can even see where users are on the lunar surface right now through the fantastic Moon Zoo Live.

I’ll be blogging more about Moon Zoo later in the year when we have something a bit special planned but, for now, if you’re intrigued by the snapshots above, you should join our crew of intrepid virtual astronauts.