Today’s scientists face daunting task

New Tools Give Fresh Look at Lunar Data

Seiichi Nagihara
Seiichi Nagihara

Most Americans old enough to remember still have memories – vivid, if fading – of where they were when Apollo 11 touched down on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969.

At least one Japanese geologist does, too.

“When Neil Armstrong became the first human to land on the moon, I was only a six-year-old boy living in Japan.”

That’s AAPG member Seiichi Nagihara, an assistant professor at the Department of Geosciences at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, and he’s talking not only about the memories but the treasure trove of data that resulted.

But it’s what’s left – what hasn’t been analyzed from that haul – that’s the basis of “Revisiting the Apollo Lunar Surface Geophysical Experiments,” a paper he’ll present in Houston at the upcoming AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition.

You may be wondering why a Japanese geoscientist with no real expertise is even involved.

You’re not alone – there was a time Nagihara thought so, too.

“About four years ago,” Nagihara said, “I became involved in a lunar research project being carried out at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center almost by accident. Scientists there needed someone with my kind of expertise (measuring and analyzing geothermal heat flow).”

“In most of my academic life I have worked on geophysical research projects on earth,” he said, “but now I’m one of the leaders in the efforts for fully restoring and re-analyzing the data from the geophysical experiments conducted by the Apollo astronauts.”

The Time is Right – Now

But why now – and why wasn’t all the data analyzed when it was first collected 40 years ago?

“The biggest reason,” Nagihara says of the lack of analysis, “is that the Apollo era scientists did not have opportunities and tools for thoroughly analyzing the data.”

And even if they had, another problem soon developed: lack of interest.

“Back on earth,” he said, after Apollo was ended, “NASA, having beaten the Soviet Union to the moon, was eager to move on to other new challenges.”

And once it did, funding for Apollo data analysis dried up, and some of the data transmitted from the ALSEP (Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Packages) instruments were left unprocessed.

Making matters worse: Technology that was available for processing – in the 1970s, at least – was inadequate anyway. The first set of instruments on Apollo was powered by solar array and lasted a mere 20 days. The rest, powered by radioisotope thermal generators, were turned off in the late 1970s.

Data that was collected was recorded on open-reel magnetic tapes, but Nagihara estimates that more than 5,000 such data tapes were needed to store the entire ALSEP instrument data.

Moreover, over the last 40 years, most of the people who were directly involved in the Apollo missions and data recovery retired.

After so much time and inattention, some of that information, like old photo albums last seen in the attic, were forgotten or lost. Things began to change about 10 years ago, according to Nagihara, when President Bush decided to send humans back to the moon.

“Scientists of the developed nations suddenly became interested in the original Apollo data,” he said. “The European Union, Japan, the United States, India and China sent robotic probes to orbit the moon.”

Nagihara said in order for the modern scientists to make sense of these newly collected remotely sensed data, they need to compare them with data collected on the ground” from the 1970s.

With more powerful computers and more sophisticated analytical methodologies, “modern lunar scientists can squeeze a lot more juice out of the data than the Apollo era scientists could,” he said. “Also, the modern scientists, as they learn more about the moon from the new data, are able to examine the ALSEP data from totally different perspectives from the Apollo era scientists.”

So what does he hope the unexplored data will show?

“For almost everything we know about the interior of the moon (the rocks that make up the moon and how they are structured), we owe it to the data and the rock samples obtained during the Apollo missions,” he said. “The ALSEP dataset represents the only direct, long-term geophysical observations carried out on the surface of an extra-terrestrial body. It was true 40 years ago, and it is true now.

“The robotic probes orbiting around the moon can tell you a lot about what is on the surface of the moon,” he added, “but when it comes to the subsurface, without the Apollo data we would know very little.”

It’s worth remembering that the Apollo astronauts (from all the flights that went to the moon: 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17) landed at only six locations. At each landing site, Nagihara said, an ALSEP or ALSEP-like instrument package was deployed, consisting of two to seven instruments.

Nagihara makes no claims as to which one of those sites holds the most promise for new information, but says he is focusing on the geothermal heat flow measurements conducted on the Apollo 15 and 17 missions, as those concern geothermal heat flow measurements – his area of specialization.

Co-authors of Nagihara’s paper are Yosi Nakamura, department of geosciences, University of Texas, Austin; and retired geophysicist L. Lewis.

Like most scientists, Nagihara says the chance to do this work, to re-analyze the data of such historic importance, is daunting.

“I will never forget what I saw on the TV at home, the image of the astronauts standing by the American flag and the lunar landing module,” he said. “This was no science fiction movie. This was way cooler than that. This was real.”

And it’s why now, when he pursues the study of this seminal moment, he feels honored, as an academician, “to be involved in the current efforts for fully restoring and re-analyzing the data of such historic importance.”

There is something else, too.

“It’s when I go back to being the six-year-old boy in Japan again.”

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Astrogeology Set For Houston

Seiichi Nagihara, an assistant professor at the geosciences department at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, will present the paper “Revisiting the Apollo Lunar Surface Geophysical Experiments,” at the AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in Houston.

Nagihara’s paper, part of a four-paper session titled “Astrogeology,” will be given at 4:25 p.m. on Monday, April 11.

The Astrogeology session co-chairs are William Ambrose and former NASA astronaut Harrison Schmitt. The session begins at 3:40 p.m.

Other papers are:

  • Lunar Helium-3 Value Chain: Investment and Funding.
  • The Near Earth Asteroids as the First Step on the Way to Mars.
  • Origin of Oil and Hydrocarbon Gases Within Our Solar System – Biogenic and Abiogenic?

Emphasis: Annual Convention