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To the Moon
Lunar Geologist, Lunar and Planetary Institute
What do you think are the most significant events that have occurred in the past fifty years of robotic planetary exploration? Why?
In rough order of importance, I would rank them:
1. The first reconnaissance of the entire solar system, including all of the planets from Mercury to Neptune, the principal satellites of the planets, including our own moon, and an inventory of the variety of minor planetary objects including meteorites, asteroids and comets. This reconnaissance began with the impact of the Soviet Luna 1 probe (first lunar mission) and the Mariner 2 flyby of Venus (first planetary mission). Over the next 50 years we continued to send impactors, flybys, orbiters, soft landers, rovers, fixed stations and people to various planetary locations near to and far from the Earth. The results of these robotic and human explorations changed our understanding of the origin and evolution of the solar system and established a new scientific discipline.
2. The determination that the collision of solid bodies (impact) is the fundamental geological process involved in planetary origin and evolution. Such an assertion was literally unimaginable before the Space Age.
3. The characterization, sampling, global survey and documentation of the habitability of the moon, our nearest planetary neighbor.
4. An understanding of how the sun works and how it interacts with the planets and interplanetary space.
In your field of work, what are some examples of the great achievements and discoveries in planetary science and robotic exploration throughout the past 50 years?
Robotic spacecraft have flown by, hit, soft-landed on and orbited the moon, educating us in its processes and history in extensive detail.
The moon is a differentiated, complex planetary object, with a crust, mantle and core. It underwent an extended impact and volcanic history. Its regolith contains a unique record of the impact and solar particle flux history of the Earth-moon system.
Also, the moon contains significant amounts of water in the polar areas, accumulated over the last two billion years. This water enables the moon to serve as a habitable logistics depot for the creation of a reusable, extensible space transportation system.