Mad About the Moon

By Kathy A. Svitil|Thursday, March 31, 2005

With all the excitement surrounding the exploration of Saturn’s mysterious moon Titan, people seem to have forgotten Earth’s moon. Yet our closest celestial neighbor has been very much on the minds of planetary scientists, entrepreneurs, archaeologists, and others these days. Some examples:

Moonquakes: That the moon shakes with small quakes has been known since Apollo astronauts deployed seismic stations on the lunar surface. Now a reanalysis of data on nearly 10,000 magnetic tapes from 1969 to 1977 has brought the nature of moonquakes into focus. During those eight years, some 6,000 moonquakes, including dozens not previously detected, rumbled deep within the satellite, say planetary scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. The quakes are believed to be caused by Earth’s gravitational tugs; similar processes could be deforming other moons and planets, including Mercury.

Helium-3: Space entrepreneurs are eyeing the moon’s vast reserves of helium-3, a heavy form of the gas that could fuel future fusion-power plants. Market value: billions of dollars per ton. In December, after an international conference in India on moon exploration, a group of North American scientists and businessmen claimed 75 percent of the mineral rights on the moon—including an estimated million tons of He-3. The group says it obtained the rights 25 years ago by filing a claim at the World Court. Experts on the 1979 United Nations moon treaty say no such legal rights exist.

Historic Site: When the Apollo astronauts stepped off the moon for the last time in December 1972, they left behind space suits, boots, cameras, antennas, hammers, and scoops. One hundred and six artifacts have now been identified and cataloged by a group of American archaeologists financed by NASA. With growing international support, they want to make Tranquility Base a protected historic site, one that could be administered by the National Park Service or the U.N. 


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