The Scientific Case for Exploring the Moon

Science says: The lunar surface is much more awesome than you think it is.

[optional image description]
The world's first view of Earth as released to the public -- taken from the vicinity of the moon. (NASA)

Here are ten heavenly bodies, ranked according to their general awesomeness:

1. The sun
2. The crab nebula
3. Molecular clouds
4. Black holes
5. Venus
6. Saturn
7. An asteroid
8. A lost satellite
9. Space dust
10. The moon

While this list might not be 100 percent scientifically accurate ... still, poor Moon. It lacks the intrigue of the sun, the mystery of Mars, even the lonely metaphor of the wandering satellite. While the moon once represented humanity's wildest technological aspirations, it's now taken a "been there, done that" quality. The last time a human set foot on the lunar surface was December. Of 1972.

A team of scientists thinks the moon deserves another shot. In a paper soon to be published in the journal Planetary and Space Science, Ian Crawford, of Birkbeck College in London, and his colleagues lay out a detailed case for amped-up lunar exploration.

First, they argue, the moon is actually a really good place to learn about the earth. "As the Earth's closest celestial neighbor the Moon retains a unique record of the inner Solar System environment under which life evolved on our planet," they write. The moon could house as many as 200 kilograms of ancient earth matter per lunar kilometer -- an odd but rich source of data about our planet. The moon's surface also likely contains a record of solar wind flux, solar luminosity, and galactic cosmic rays as they interacted throughout the history of the solar system -- which could offer clues not only into the environment of the solar system itself, but also into the past habitability of earth.

The moon might also be an ideal spot for making astronomical observations. While we've gotten really good at making those observations from earth, across the electromagnetic spectrum, there's one section that's been inaccessible to us: the ultra low-frequency radio waves. And the dark side of the moon offers the perfect, silent spot to make measurements -- specifically, the authors suggest, with a radio telescope that could be thousands of kilometers in diameter. "The low-frequency universe is the last uncharted part of the electromagnetic spectrum," they note, "and a lunar infrastructure would greatly benefit its exploration."

Most controversially, however, the team makes the specific argument for humans -- not just robots -- exploring the moon. For one thing, they say, it would give us valuable insight into the effects of low gravity on the human body. That line of argument, however, is less convincing. As Tech Review points out, "a similar argument is often made about humans on the International Space Station but this work has produced little, if any, benefit for the rest of us. (Indeed the presence of humans is what makes the International Space Station profoundly unsuitable for most micro gravity experiments and astronomical observations.)" For now, we can make a case for walking on the moon. It just might not be human feet taking the steps.