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UMD, Italy & MoonEx Join to Put New Laser-Reflecting Arrays on Moon

June 10, 2015

Lee Tune 301-405-4679

Mission Will Advance UMD-Led Science Started With Apollo 11 in 1969

Artist’s rendering of Moon Express MX-1 spacecraft orbiting the Moon in preparation for landing. MX-1 will deliver the "MoonLIGHT" payloads to the lunar surface to help solve the mysteries of Einstein's General Relativity, investigate lunar geophysics, and develop precision navigation "lighthouses" for future missions. Graphic provided by Moon Express.

COLLEGE PARK Md. – The University of Maryland, The National Laboratories of Frascati, Italy, and Moon Express (MoonEx), a leading contender in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, recently announced they will deliver a new set of lunar laser ranging arrays to the Moon over a series of missions that are anticipated to begin in 2017. 

The partners said the new arrays will allow more accurate measurements, which will be used to test principles of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, add to international scientific knowledge of the Moon
and increase lunar mapping accuracy. 

“Our ‘Lunar Laser Ranging Retroreflector for the 21st Century (LLRRA-21/MoonLIGHT)’ next generation lunar laser ranging arrays offer a promising way to test general relativity and other theories of gravity. Such studies may help us understand the nature of dark energy, a mysterious force that appears to constitute almost 70 percent of the Universe,” said University of Maryland astrophysicist Doug Currie

Currie and his colleague, UMD physicist Carroll Alley, were principal scientists for the Apollo arrays that were deployed during the Apollo missions that first validated the idea of using lunar-based mirrors for cosmology purposes.

Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment is in the foreground.  In the background are the stereo camera (right) and Apollo 11 lunar lander (left).  (NASA image number AS11-40-5952).

Laser ranging is used to precisely measure the distance between the Earth and Moon as each body rotates and moves through its orbit. Laser pulses are sent from a telescope on Earth to the retroreflector array on the moon. The corner-cube reflectors (mirrors) of the array send the pulse straight back to the originating telescope where the distance measurement is recorded. "It's like hitting a ball into the corner of a squash court," said Alley explaining the technique in a 2004 NASA science news article on the only experiment from the Apollo moon missions that is still running today.

“Our agreement with Moon Express allows us to get our new lunar laser ranging arrays to the Moon cost effectively and to potentially revolutionize our understanding of gravity,” said Currie.

The LLRRA-21/MoonLIGHT Lunar Laser Ranging Retroreflector Array was developed as collaboration primarily between the University of Maryland and the Frascati branch (LNF) of The Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) of Italy, together with additional Italian partners, the Matera Laser Ranging Observatory of ASI and the University of Padova and with collaborators at the University of Hannover, Hannover, Germany and the Czech Technical University, Prague, the Czech Republic.

"These tests reach to the core foundational principles of general relativity," said Simone Dell'Agnello of The National Laboratories of Frascati. "Any detected violation would require a major revision of current theoretical understanding of the way the universe works."  

Laser pulses are sent from telescopes on Earth to retroreflector arrays on the moon.Plans call for Moon Express to land the LLRRA-21/MoonLIGHT instruments on its first four missions to the lunar surface, with an initial technology demonstration mission planned for 2017. The agreement between the parties was announced May 15 in Frascati, Italy, in connection with a Global Exploration Roadmap workshop of the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG). 

"The LLRRA-21/MoonLIGHT arrays are beautiful payloads for us," said Bob Richards, co-founder and CEO of Moon Express, Inc., a privately funded commercial space company. "It's amazing to think that Moon Express could help solve fundamental science questions of cosmology while furthering knowledge of the Moon that helps our future missions with this series of elegant and relatively low cost payloads."

Moon Express began flight-testing of its MTV-1 lander test vehicle at Kennedy Space Center in December 2014. The company recently announced an agreement with Space Florida to take over the historic Space Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral to become the home of its lunar lander development and flight test operations beginning early this year.