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NASA: Moon is more complicated than we thought

NASA: Moon is more complicated than we thought

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Check out the moon Saturday night at an International Observe the Moon Night event near you.

Thanks to the data pouring in from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting the moon for the last 15 months with seven of the most sensitive instruments ever used to measure the moon, we know more about the moon than we ever have.

Not surprisingly, it's more complicated than we thought. And it's not made of green cheese either. (Full disclosure: one of the scientists working on the LRO is my son-in-law.)

Three papers published this week in the journal Science detail some of what NASA scientists have learned so far about the composition, topography and geological history of the moon in preparation for sending robotic and maybe human explorers there.

"LRO has been a spectacular success for exploration," said Mike Wargo, NASA's chief lunar scientist, at a press conference today. "We're planning for additional missions, but this data is also timeless for current and future generations of scientists, explorers and engineers. We're looking to make the best atlas that we could."

Among NASA's findings: The moon has been pummeled separately by two different types of projectiles -- asteroids or comets -- that left craters of different ages and sizes. These expose different depths of the lunar surface, which can be studied for composition and for potential landing sites for future missions. The craters also left clues about the early history of the solar system and the development of life on Earth, since Earth and the moon are close enough to get hit by the same volleys of projectiles.

The moon also has more different types of rock than scientists thought, which creates the dark and light patches you see when you look at it, and it has volcanoes, which means that it's geologically complex.

If you can attend International Observe the Moon Night tomorrow, you'll be able to understand some of what the scientists are seeing. (Go here to see if there's an event scheduled near you). Several of these gatherings will have access to telescopes for the public and will offer talks by astronomers and other scientists on what we're learning about the moon now and what you should look for when you view it.

If you're an amateur astronomer, you can download NASA's data -- the Web site for Diviner, which is creating detailed temperature maps of the moon's surface, has some  -- and use it to inform your own observations.

NASA's LRO Web site also has lots of material on the moon that's aimed at all ages and levels of expertise.

And there's still a lot left to learn. Knowing something about the moon and the inner solar system tells us little about the outer solar system, said project scientist Rich Vondrak, although NASA's research has brought together different types of scientists who are now teaching each other.

Dynamicists, for instance, who study the position of projectiles, and geologists, who study rocks, have started talking, and together they'll think of new areas to investigate that nobody's thought of before.

Here's an animation from NASA of what the instruments are doing with the moon.

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Deborah Gage

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Deborah Gage has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Minnesota Public Radio, Baseline and various magazines and newspapers. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure