Part-Two of: A conversation with Paul Spudis

Dr. Paul D. Spudis is a Senior Staff Scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland and Visiting Scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas. Dr. Spudis was formerly with the Branch of Astrogeology, U. S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona and the Lunar and Planetary Institute.

He is a geologist who received his education at Arizona State University (B.S., 1976; Ph. D., 1982) and at Brown University (Sc.M., 1977). Since 1982, he has been a Principal Investigator in the Planetary Geology and Geophysics Program of the NASA Office of Space Science, Solar System Exploration Division, specializing in research on the processes of impact and volcanism on the planets.

Included among many of the committees he has served on, he has been a member of the Committee for Planetary and Lunar Exploration (COMPLEX), an advisory committee of the National Academy of Sciences, and the Synthesis Group, a White House panel that in 1990-1991, analyzed a return to the Moon to establish a base and the first human mission to Mars. He was Deputy Leader of the Science Team for the Department of Defense Clementine mission to the Moon in 1994. He was a member of the President’s Commission on the Implementation of U. S. Space Exploration Policy, (a.k.a. the Aldridge Commission.)

That is in and of itself a major mouthful, but it only scratches the surface, Paul was kind enough the other day to participate in an interview with us. Like the brief bio above, the list of questions that follow only scratch the surface of the list Rob, Ken and I could have put together, but we need to be reasonable, so I hope you find the results informative, I know I did.
OotC: To what space interest organizations, do you belong?

PDS: I became a member of the advisory board of the Coalition for Space Exploration, which is an advocacy group created to lobby for the VSE. I belong to several professional societies; the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics just awarded me their von Karman lectureship for 2006, in which I go around the country giving a talk at various universities and other places (my talk is about returning to the Moon.) I also belong to several other scientific societies, largely because it gets you subscriptions to the various technical journals that we use in our business.

I’ve been beating the “Return-to-the-Moon” drum for the last 20 years and it’s rewarding to know that these efforts are taking root. Through my books and invited talks to interested groups, I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to raise awareness about the important role the Moon plays in our understanding of life here on Earth and the potential it holds for our future.

OotC: Where can one go for a good Lunar studies degree?

PDS: Lots of universities now have very strong planetary science programs – the Universities of Hawaii, Arizona, and Colorado and Arizona State, Brown and Washington Universities come to mind in particular. I would advise students to concern themselves with getting a good grounding in basic science of all types – chemistry, physics, biology, and geology, rather than focus on “lunar studies.” You need a broad scientific background to really contribute something new and innovative in lunar science.

OotC: Do you think crater counting, sizing and dating is a worthwhile pursuit for Lunar science?

PDS: It’s a tool that we use – I don’t know if I’d characterize it as a “worthwhile pursuit” in and of itself. We count craters to estimate the relative ages of surface units. On the Moon, we try to apply data from lunar sample studies to infer an absolute age, but usually those are merely educated guesses. Geologists want to know where and when things happened on planets; that’s why we make geological maps and why we count craters.

OotC: What technologies do you envision coming from Lunar development?

PDS: If we go to the poles, I envision a lot of new innovations in low temperature engineering and cryogenics. We think the dark areas might be as cold as 50 Kelvin (i.e., 50 degrees above absolute zero). This is a very challenging environment, to say the least! Getting the machines and systems we need to mine lunar ice in these areas will be difficult. I suspect that we may come up with new technologies to mine and process the lunar ice deposits. Although such technology would have many applications here on Earth, its real value will be for journeys to the planets beyond Earth’s orbit.

OotC: As we lean toward exploring the ever-dark regions of the lunar polar areas, what do you think would result from the use of a mirror on a crater rim to illuminate a portion of a hydrogen rich crater? (A. Explosive release?, B. moderate out-gassing?, C. good way to illuminate mining ops?)

PDS: I don’t think you’d want to do this. Sunlight shining into the cold traps would heat the surface and if the ice is volatilized, we could lose it to space. I want it to stay right where it is so I can dig it up and use it! We can rig artificial lights to illuminate mining operations. They would be low-power and unobtrusive.

OotC: What kinds of things can we learn from studying the crust/mantle interface believed to be exposed in the Aitken Basin?

PDS: Geologists always want to see deep into a planet. South Pole-Aitken basin is the biggest impact crater on the Moon and is potentially big enough to have dug through the entire lunar crust and exposed the mantle below. Studying the rocks of the lower crust and upper mantle would teach us a lot about the early melting history of the Moon, its bulk composition, and ultimately, its origin. However, it’s not clear that even SPA, as big as it is (over 2000 km in diameter) was big enough to penetrate through the crust. That’s an unresolved issue in lunar science. But we can study the basin in detail when we go back to the Moon.

OotC: Last year it was ‘revealed’ at one of the space conferences that Lunar regolith had stronger magnetic properties than realized in part from the mist of iron nanoparticles found in regolith but not in the terrestrial analogues. Should NASA be making more of the real samples available for study so that we can search for other things we seem to have missed?

PDS: That new insight came from many years of study of the lunar samples. In part, we can do that because the Lunar Curatorial Facility in Houston is very careful about maintaining the scientific integrity of the collection. While I favor experiments using real lunar samples, there is a well thought out policy of protocols that one must follow before they are given real lunar samples for experiments. They must first demonstrate their experimental techniques on lunar simulants and must do it multiple times for repeatability. Only after this will they be given real lunar material. I think this is a sensible policy. Although ultimately we’ll have all the lunar samples we could possibly want, we must be careful to preserve integrity of the existing collection until we get back to the Moon.

OotC: With that and the news a while back of a laboratory, lunar regolith sample, going up for auction in Europe, what percentage of lunar samples has been kept unstudied in the vaults of JSC?

I don’t know the exact numbers, but in terms of mass, it is certainly the majority of the collection. I seem to recall a number like 80% of the collection has been “untouched.” But that’s a very misleading statistic. Every numbered lunar sample has been examined, photographed, and characterized. The LCF might take a tiny chip off the edge of a sample, analyze it by a variety of means, including its mineralogy, chemistry, and age, and then put the remaining 99% of the rock in storage. Does that mean the sample is “unstudied”? Not really, because the subsample we took told us what it is and what it’s made of. Of course, some secrets still remain in the Pristine Sample Vaults at JSC, but I have no doubt that they’ll all be revealed over the years as sample studies continue.

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