NASA approves Moon mission to study volcanic terrain, testing theory developed by Brown team

A Brown University alumnus will lead the investigation for a lunar lander mission to study volcanic activity on the Moon, a mission first proposed by a Brown researcher and Brown-affiliated scientists.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — As part of NASA’s flagship Artemis program for lunar exploration, the space agency has given the green light to send a suite of instruments, including a rover, to the Moon to investigate the age and composition of hilly terrain formed by volcanic activity on the near side of the Moon.

F. Scott Anderson, a Brown Class of 1990 graduate who serves as a staff scientist at the Southwest Research Institute’s Solar System Science and Exploration Division, will serve as principal investigator. Jim Head, a planetary scientist in Brown’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, will serve as a co-investigator on the mission, which is based largely on a 2021 study for which Head served as lead author. That study proposed mission concepts for exploring the terrain, including robotic landers, sample returns, rovers and human exploration.

The terrain the mission will focus on is called the Ina Irregular Mare Patch, a depression on the Moon’s surface about two miles long and a mile wide first discovered in 1971 by the Apollo 15 mission. The depression is thought to have been formed by volcanic eruptions. Learning about it can provide insights into both the Moon’s volcanic history and the history of the entire solar system, Head said.

The overarching objective is to determine if the Moon was volcanically active in the recent past. The hope is to distinguish between two major hypotheses that identify the age of the terrain as being geologically young, meaning it is less than 100 million years old, or being geologically old, meaning the Ina patch is more like 3.5 billion years old.

“If Ina really is as young as it appears, that means that the Moon has been volcanically active much more recently than scientists have thought,” said Anderson, who graduated from Brown with a bachelor of science in geology-physics/mathematics. “If we find that Ina is as old as typical lunar rocks, that indicates that the material properties of certain rocks can fool us — if we are not careful — as we try to understand the ages of planetary surfaces throughout the solar system.”

As part of their analysis, the team will also perform the first laser dating experiment on the Moon.

The mission was selected as part of NASA’s proposal call for Payloads and Research Investigations on the Surface of the Moon (PRISM), which sends science investigations to the Moon in conjunction with a NASA initiative called CLPS or Commercial Lunar Payload Services. It will make use of a CLPS-provided rover, collection gripping instruments from Lockheed Martin and a novel mass spectrometer that Anderson designed that can help determine composition of the lunar material on the spot to analyze the age and composition of samples collected.

The instrument suite is dubbed DIMPLE, short for Dating an Irregular Mare Patch with a Lunar Explorer.

Involvement in the DIMPLE mission taps into the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences’ long history of lunar expertise, research and discovery. That work ranges from the Apollo missions in the 1960s and ‘70s to more recent discoveries focused on solving a mystery on lunar magnetism, advancing scientific understanding of water in the Moon’s interior and other ongoing lunar research that could influence upcoming missions to the Moon.

The department also has a history studying lunar volcanism, from analyzing volcanic glasses returned from the Apollo 15 and 17 lunar missions to multiple research papers on the Ina patch, such as work pushing back on its age or characterizing the material at the summit of the crater.

The work on the Ina patch and the 2021 study were largely led by Head; Lionel Wilson, a visiting professor from Lancaster University; and Le Qiao, who was a visiting graduate student from China University of Geosciences in Wuhan and is now at Shandong University in Eastern China. The work from the trio helped set the stage for DIMPLE by helping to define the two opposing views of this lunar dilemma and how to solve the problem.

“It's a big debate,” said Head, a professor of geological sciences at Brown. “The instruments for the mission will place the age within a couple 100 million years, and that will settle it. We will also have cameras that are going to look at the physical properties of the material, determining things like is it rock or is it foamy. Ultimately, this will tell us if the Moon is dead or still alive depending on when this activity happened.”

A launch date for DIMPLE has not yet been finalized, but is planned for 2027.

The mission will be managed by the Southwest Research Institute. In addition to Brown and the Southwest Research Institute, the DIMPLE team also includes researchers from Colgate University, the Aerospace Corporation, the University of Bern and Lockheed Martin.