May 11, 2023 — Southwest Research Institute has entered into a five-year, $7.5-million cooperative agreement with NASA to lead the Center for Lunar Origin and Evolution (CLOE), which will conduct basic research to support science enabled by human exploration of the Moon and the Endurance-A mission concept, a far side lunar rover mission prioritized by the 2022 Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey report, “Origins, Worlds, and Life.” CLOE will be part of NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI).
“The Moon is unmatched in its potential to provide fundamental advances in our understanding of the origin and early evolution of the Solar System,” said SwRI’s Dr. William Bottke, CLOE principal investigator. “Human exploration of the Moon revolutionized lunar science in the past and promises to do so again in the near future.”
Apollo samples from the lunar nearside provided the foundation for current knowledge of the Moon’s composition, crust and bombardment up to 4 billion years ago. But the earliest history of the Moon in its first 500 million years remains less well understood. NASA’s Artemis Program will send humans back to the Moon starting in the mid-2020s with landings in the south polar region. Exploration of the more ancient lunar far side will reveal the preserved record of the earliest bombardment of the Moon, including the oldest and largest impact basin, the 1,500-mile-wide South Pole-Aiken (SPA) basin, which extends from near the south pole to cover much of the far side’s southern hemisphere.
The far side of the Moon is the hemisphere that always faces away from Earth because of the Moon’s synchronous rotation. Compared to the near side, the far side terrain is rugged, with a multitude of impact craters and relatively few of the large, dark basaltic features characteristic of the nearside.
“Exploring the Moon has tremendous potential for supporting transformative science,” said CLOE Deputy Principal Investigator Dr. Robin Canup, vice president of SwRI’s Solar System Science and Exploration Division. “Models indicate that the Moon formed via a titanic collision with the Earth at the end of our planet’s formation. Clues needed to unravel the nature of this event are still on the Moon and can help us better characterize terrestrial planet formation.”
CLOE will focus on models of terrestrial planet formation and early lunar bombardment, the conditions of Earth-Moon origin, and how exploration of the SPA basin can allow us to better understand solar system formation and early evolution. Because the impact that formed SPA was so large, it almost certainly excavated material from the Moon’s deep interior. Collecting samples of these materials would significantly expand knowledge of the Moon’s bulk composition and subsurface volatile content — key data needed to reveal the conditions of the Earth-Moon origin and the thermochemical evolution of a young rocky world.
“The time is ideal for SSERVI — a program designed to work at the interface of NASA’s robotic scientific and human exploration programs — to play a central role in supporting and maximizing the scientific return from planned lunar exploration,” said Bottke. “The envisioned Endurance-A robotic rover would traverse SPA and collect carefully selected samples to be delivered to Artemis astronauts for return to Earth, producing an Apollo-class sample set from the far side of the Moon.”
CLOE includes 18 investigators from eight U.S. institutions — SwRI, the University of Colorado, the University of Arizona, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Space Science Institute, the Lunar and Planetary Institute, Purdue University and Yale — as well as many collaborations with international scientists. SSERVI is a virtual institute headquartered at NASA’s Ames Research Center, with members distributed among universities and research institutes across the United States and around the world. SSERVI is working to address fundamental science questions and issues that can help further human exploration of the Solar System.