NASA Plots ‘Priority’ Mission To Explore Moon’s Mysterious Domes
NASA is sending a rover to try to learn how two volcano-like domes on the Moon were formed.
HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

NASA is sending a rover on a “priority” mission: Explore the Moon’s mysterious volcano-like Gruithuisen Domes.

The project, dubbed the Lunar Vulkan Imaging and Spectroscopy Explorer, is part of a “Priority Artemis Science” mission slated for 2025 or 2026. It is aimed at revealing the secrets of a geological anomaly that has puzzled scientists for decades. On Earth, features similar to the Gruithuisen Domes are formed by silica-rich magma, but the Moon lacks the ingredients geologists believe are necessary to create them.

“We’ve got a lunar mystery on our hands!” NASA’s Caroline Capone wrote. “The Gruithuisen Domes are a geologic enigma. Based on early telescopic and spacecraft observations, these domes have long been suspected to be formed by a magma rich in silica, similar in composition to granite. […] The real mystery is how such silicic magmas could form on the Moon.”

The domes consist of two mounds, designated Mons Gruithuisen Gamma and Mons Gruithuisen Delta, and are located north of the Moon’s Gruithuisen crater. The domes don’t match the surrounding terrain, which is covered by hardened basaltic lava flows. Basaltic lavas, according to NASA, are runny and thin, while silicic flows are thick. The space agency compared the difference between the two to motor oil vs. peanut butter.

The Gruithuisen Domes were formed by eruptions of thick silicic lavas, which bunched up instead of flowing outward. But that is a mystery, because on Earth, silicic volcanoes only form in the presence of two ingredients—water and plate tectonics. Since neither exists on the Moon, scientists are baffled as to how the Gruithuisen Domes formed.

The Lunar-VISE investigation will use five instruments, two mounted on a stationary lander and three built onto a mobile rover to be provided by a commercial enterprise. Over 10 days, the Lunar-VISE will examine the summit of one of the domes collecting data to help scientists figure out how they were created.

“In order to truly understand these puzzling features, we need to visit the domes, explore them from the ground, and analyze rock samples,” Capone explained. “Luckily, NASA is planning to do just that! Hopefully, in just a couple of years we will better understand this lunar mystery!”

The scientists behind the $35 million Lunar-VISE are Kerri Donaldson Hanna and Adrienne Dove of the University of Central Florida.

“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,” Donaldson Hanna said in a statement.

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