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MIT scientists to be key Lunar Institute members

MIT faculty and students will play substantial roles on two of the seven teams that NASA selected to be part of its virtual Lunar Science Institute, aimed at addressing key questions about lunar science in preparation for the resumption of human visits to the moon about a decade from now.

The seven teams were unveiled by NASA on Friday, Jan. 9. One of the selected teams, called "The Moon as Cornerstone to the Terrestrial Planets: The Formative Years," has as its principal investigator Carle Pieters SB '71, SM '72, PhD '77 of Brown University. The team will include Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) head Maria Zuber, as well as EAPS faculty members Lindy Elkins-Tanton, Tim Grove, Ben Weiss and Jack Wisdom, and PhD candidate Ian Garrick-Bethell.

"This is thrilling," Zuber said. "The goal is to study the surface, interior and evolution of the moon. The approach we took is a strong educational and mentoring focus," to give faculty, especially junior faculty, as well as more students and postdocs a chance to work on lunar science projects in collaboration with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and two Russian research institutes.

Zuber and her colleagues are already involved in upcoming lunar missions including the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and GRAIL mission. The selection of this team as part of the new Lunar Science Institute will mean "we can disseminate the results coming out of these new missions more broadly, which increases their value," she said.

The other team with MIT involvement is called "Lunar University Node for Astrophysics Research (LUNAR): Exploring the Cosmos from the Moon." Its principal investigator is Jack Burns of the University of Colorado in Boulder, and the team includes Jacqueline Hewitt, director of MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, and Research Scientist Joel Villasenor, as well as students who will be selected later.

"This is part of a larger effort under way to develop a radio array on the moon," Hewitt said. "Our main scientific goals are to study the formation of the first generation of stars and galaxies, and to study the initial conditions of the universe that made the star formation possible. It turns out it takes a huge array to do this -- we think about 10,000 antennas working together in an array."

The array needs to be on the moon to get away from radio interference on Earth, she explains. But while the individual antennas are cheap, she says, "getting them to work together as a useful scientific array on the far side of the moon is an interesting problem. Our students will need to think creatively to help solve some of the problems, like doing this within a certain mass and power envelope, and making such a complex system work autonomously in a harsh environment."

Jim Green, director of the Planetary Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said "we look forward to solid contributions from these teams. These are some of the key individuals who will be vital to NASA successfully conducting the ambitious activities of returning to the moon with robots and humans."

Teams were selected from 33 proposals. Based and managed at Ames, the lunar facility is a virtual institute, enabling the newly selected members to remain at their home institutions. Partnerships and collaborations among members are highly encouraged and facilitated through a variety of proven networking tools, such as frequent videoconferences.

Opened in April 2008, the facility is modeled after the NASA Astrobiology Institute, also based at Ames. That institute is a virtual facility that has successfully sustained a productive research program for more than a decade. The newly selected Lunar Institute teams, along with the international associate and affiliate teams, have members working together throughout the world.

The institutes are supported by the Science Mission Directorate and Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

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