NASA robotic mission to explore the Moon’s mysterious Gruithuisen Domes


NASA robotic mission to explore the Moon’s mysterious Gruithuisen Domes

The Gruithuisen Domes are located in the largest impact crater on the near side of the Moon.
Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

NASA has selected a new science mission that will land a spacecraft on a part of the Moon that’s never before been visited: the Gruithuisen Domes. Scientists, mission operators, and data analysts from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado Boulder will play an important role in this mission, which will be led by researchers at the University of Central Florida (UCF).

The domes, located along the western rim of the Imbrium Basin, the largest impact crater on the Moon’s near side, remain a mystery to scientists. Flyover data from previous missions indicate the surface in this region is unlike most other volcanic features on the Moon. Rather than the dark, magnesium- and iron-rich volcanic minerals that once crystallized from molten magma in the Moon’s mare, or “seas”, the Gruithuisen domes instead appear to be composed of lighter-colored, more silica-rich volcanic minerals. 

The new robotic mission, called the Lunar Vulkan Imaging and Spectroscopy Explorer (Lunar-VISE), was selected as part of NASA’s highly competitive Payloads and Research Investigations on the Surface of the Moon (PRISM) program. This is part of the federal agency’s plan to use commercial companies to take payloads to the Moon through its Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. A series of missions have been approved to support the Artemis programand continue lunar exploration. Lunar-VISE is expected to launch in 2026.

“We’re still in awe,” says UCF Assistant Professor Kerri Donaldson Hanna, the mission’s principal investigator. “We’ll be using a suite of instruments on a lander and rover to study the domes’ makeup including the composition and properties of regolith and boulders and how lunar dust responds to the lander and rover as it explores the volcanic dome. There’s potentially a treasure trove of knowledge waiting to be discovered, which will not only help us inform future robotic and human exploration of the Moon, but may also help us better understand the history of our own planet as well as other planets in the solar system.”

LASP’s lunar experts

Two LASP researchers, Margaret Landis and Paul Hayne, will participate in Lunar-VISE as science co-investigators. Landis will focus on how two types of spectroscopy, including from gamma-rays and neutrons produced by bombardment from galactic cosmic rays and from photons in the thermal infrared, can work together to reveal more about the near-surface composition of the Gruithuisen domes. Understanding the composition below the Moon’s surface can help aid in interpreting how much the surface has changed through being exposed to space for billions of years. 

Hayne, who’s also an assistant professor in the Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences Department at the University of Colorado Boulder, will be leading the development of a thermal camera to be built by Ball Aerospace. The Lunar-VISE Compact Infrared Imaging System (LV-CIRiS) will provide novel information about the composition and porosity of the Gruithuisen domes’ magma source, as well as the physical properties of the lunar surface materials. LASP will also lead the mission operations and process the science data collected from each of the instruments.

“We’re thrilled at this opportunity to get down on the surface and see the domes up close through infrared ‘eyes’, to better understand how the Moon’s crust evolved to produce such unusual volcanic features,” says Hayne. “Ground truthing from the Gruithuisen domes will also help us better interpret observations taken from lunar orbit.”

“This is an opportunity to do field work on the Moon, and I can’t wait to work with Kerri and the rest of the team to plan and interpret rover traverses,” says Landis. “We’ve got lots of silicic domes on the Earth and figuring out how they were emplaced on the Moon is going to be a great puzzle to solve.”

“LASP’s mission operators and data analysts will serve as the vital connection between this lunar rover, NASA, and the mission’s many partners,” says Jerry Jason, director of LASP’s Mission Operations and Data Systems Division. “We’re honored to contribute to this exciting scientific research and help support NASA’s goal of returning to the Moon and using innovative technologies to explore more of its surface.”

Additional mission partners

Ball Aerospace will build three camera systems for this mission: the Context and Descent Cameras, the VNIR Imaging Camera, and the Compact Infrared Imaging System, which is known as LV-CIRiS. The Context and Descent Cameras will be located on the lander and will be used to observe the rover’s work throughout the mission; the other two will be located on the rover and will provide critical information on the composition and properties of the volcanic domes. 

Arizona State University will provide a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer, which will be located on the rover. This will be the first time this kind of instrument will make measurements from the lunar surface, according to Donaldson Hanna. This instrument will be critical in identifying the elemental composition of the top ~1 meter of material, which is important to understand how these areas formed. 

From Earth examples, it is thought that silicic volcanism may require water. If the spectrometer indicates there’s a high abundance of hydrogen in the Gruithuisen domes, it may support this hypothesis and indicate a new importance of water in lunar volcanism and as a source for lunar polar water. Volatiles like water can also act as important tracers for the history of melting and recrystallization of volcanic rocks, and the ratios of elements like iron and magnesium can be used to compare the domes to lunar rock samples.    

The science team also includes lunar experts from University of California Los Angeles, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Maryland, Planetary Science Institute, United States Geological Survey, and the University of Oxford.

The mission’s goal of better understanding the behavior of dust will be important in planning trips to the Moon and long-term mission on its surface. Not only can dust damage spacecraft and instruments, says Donaldson Hanna, but it could pose hazards to astronauts who are not properly outfitted.

“It’s very exciting to be selected,” says UCF Associate Professor Adrienne Dove, the mission’s deputy principal investigator. “It was an ambitious proposal, but what we learn will be invaluable. As we land, we’ll be able to see how dust is disturbed and then watch how the region changes over time. We’ll be able to observe how the rover modifies the surface as it travels across the domes to conduct its work. Right now, we have limited direct observations and data from the Apollo missions, and a few missions from more recent Chinese landers and rovers, so this will be a significant additional contribution.”

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