The Lunar Research Institute (LRI) had its beginning in the creation and management of the Lunar Prospector Spacecraft. Based on Lunar Prospector's spectacular scientific and programmatic success, LRI has expanded its Charter to include four additional areas of activity: The scientific study of the Moon using the data available from all manned and unmanned spacecraft missions; the development of lunar resource utilization technology; and the definition of - and participation in new lunar exploration missions with the ultimate goal of helping develop a lunar base that will serve as the basis for more detailed studies of the Moon, the utilization of the Moon’s resources for humanity and its expansion into the first extraterrestrial lunar colony; and the education of future lunar scientists. The details of the four parts of the Lunar Research Charter are as follows:
1) Lunar Prospector: The Key to Lunar Exploration
LRI's Director, Dr. Alan Binder, was the creator, driving force and Principal Investigator of the Lunar Prospector (LP) Mission that mapped the Moon from a low, polar orbit in 1998 and 1999 — the first NASA supported mission to explore the Moon in over 25 years. The LP Spacecraft and Mission were defined and designed by Dr. Binder to demonstrate the utility, cost effectiveness and commercial viability of small, simple spacecraft for conducting Lunar and Planetary exploration. By doing so he expected to open the door to the global scale, commercial exploration of the Moon and its resources with the ultimate goal of returning humankind to the Moon to develop the first extraterrestrial colony. The spectacular success of the mission met his expectation as follows:
Programmatically — Under Dr. Binder's hands-on management of both the Lockheed Martin team of engineers who built, tested and launched LP and the Mission Operations Team, of which he was the Mission Director, the Spacecraft was flight-ready only 2 years after the start of construction and the total mission cost was only $63 million or about 10% of that of an equivalent NASA defined and managed mission.
Engineering — The Spacecraft was built by a team of about 40 Lockheed Martin engineers, was controlled by a Mission Operations Team of about 20 scientists and engineers and performed flawless during the entire 19-month mission.
Scientifically — The LP science data was a factor of 10 better than promised. All of the nominal 1-year mission objectives were accomplished within the first seven months of the mission, generally at substantially better resolution (60 km) than promised (150 km). Some of the highlights of the scientific results are the discovery of a few billion tons of water ice near the lunar poles — a discovery which opens the door to low cost human activities on the Moon, the first complete mapping of the lunar gravity field, the lunar magnetic fields, and the global elemental compositional mapping of the Moon.
The Lunar Prospector Mission is chronicled in a book entitled "Lunar Prospector: Against All Odds". For an overview of the book along with ordering information click here.
2) Scientific Studies of the Moon
LRI’s scientific staff is involved in various areas of study in order to understand the Moon’s origin, evolution, its resources and its current state. These include, but are not limited to the following:
Sample Analysis and Synthesis — Lunar samples brought to Earth via the manned Apollo Program, the unmanned Russian Luna program and lunar meteorites are studied to determine their petrology, mineralogy, elemental compositions, isotopic compositions and ages. These data, along with those obtained from the literature, are synthesized to determine 1) the compositional and physical characteristics of the dark, mare basalts (volcanic), their source region (the lunar mantle) and their genesis, 2) the genesis of the light colored rocks that make up the bulk of the lunar crust, 3) the initial differentiation of the Moon into an iron core, the mantle and its original crust and 4) the nature, abundance and distribution of lunar resources.
Morphological Studies of Surface Features — The study of lunar features and terrestrial analogs are made, in conjunction with the age data obtained from the sample analysis program, are used to understand the roles of impact cratering, volcanism, tectonism and moonquakes in the development of the Moon.
Studies of the Lunar Interior’s State and Physical Processes — Data from the Apollo seismometers, heat-flow probes magnetometers, etc. are used to determine the Moon’s internal structure, bulk composition, thermal history, thermoelastic stress history and moonquakes. In addition to its scientific value, the study of the moonquakes is vitally important because we do not know the lunar seismic risk factor. Previous studies have indicated that very large and very destructive moonquakes do occur, though infrequently, and must be considered when planning a lunar base and colony, as chronicled in Dr. Binder’s factual, science fiction book "Moonquake" click here.
3) Lunar Resource Utilization Technology
Using the data from the sample analysis program, the staff conducts theoretical studies of various techniques that could be used to process lunar resources, e.g., cast basalt technologies for making building material, reduction processes for obtaining oxygen, aluminum, silicon, magnesium, etc. for lunar materials, solar cell technologies for use on the Moon, etc. Based on the results of the theoretical studies, laboratory scale experiments are made to determine how well each process works using lunar material simulantes. Once these laboratory experiments have shown which process are most promising, their further development is turned over to LRI’s sister engineering company, Lunar Exploration Inc. (LEI). LEI than takes the next step in developing the process(s) – pilot plant(s). After that, the next step will be setting up a processing plant on the Moon!
4) Future Missions
Building on the success of the Lunar Prospector Mission, Dr. Binder is planning additional lunar polar orbit mapping missions that will finish the global orbital mapping of the Moon. These missions will:
1) Map the Moon's mineralogy, thermal and microwave radiation, topography, and shallow crustal structure;
2) Provide metric mapping and high-resolution stereo-imaging data on the Moon.
The LRI staff is also planning a series of unmanned Lunar Landing Missions that will:
1) Set up a seismological/heat flow/magnetometer network on the Moon to study Moonquakes, the seismic risk factor, and the properties and thermal budget of the deep interior of the Moon;
2) Bring back samples from various areas on the Moon to continue the studies of lunar petrology, chemistry and resources;
3) Land rovers on the Moon to verify and map the water ice at the poles and to make gravity, magnetic and composition traverse across major lunar features.
Finally, the ultimate goal of LRI is to promote the development of a Lunar Base that will allow even more detailed studies of the Moon, the utilization of the Moon’s resources for humanity and its expansion into the first extraterrestrial lunar colony.
The engineering and construction of the spacecraft needed to conduct the unmanned missions will be done by Lunar Exploration Inc., LRI's sister corporation, as well as engineering studies of the Lunar Base in its transportation infrastructure.
Though not part of a university, LRI offers students from the high school level through the graduate school level part-time assistantships. This allows the student to gain hands-on experience working with lunar scientists and being mentored by them. Sources of such students are the numerous Tucson high schools, Pima Community College and the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and Astronomy Department. For more information on LRI's educational programs click here.