Your chance to be a lunar scientist

Scientists are appealing to space fans to help identify features on the Moon – and even to discover the wreckage of long-lost spacecraft. A new web project called Moon Zoo asks them to check out photos of the lunar surface as detailed as the views enjoyed by Apollo astronauts. 

They can then contribute to a count of craters across as much of the Moon as possible to help reveal how the Moon has changed over billions of years.

The images, picked from the many thousands taken by three cameras aboard NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter since it arrived around the Moon last year. These showed the lunar landscape in remarkable detail, including features as small as 50cm (a foot and a half) across.

Volunteers taking part use a computer-game type interface to pick out the larger craters in any one image and mark their size and anything unusual about them, such a boulders around the rim which can indicate the depth of the lunar soil, or regolith.

They will also pick out other odd features including evidence of recent impacts and even debris from probes that crashed in the early years of the space age.

Scientists from several UK universities and the USA are helping run Moon Zoo which is the latest “citizen science” challenge set up as part of the Zooniverse project led by Oxford scientist and co-presenter of the BBC’s The Sky at Night Chris Lintott.

The first, called Galaxy Zoo, which got the public to categorise thousands of previously unseen galaxies, was a remarkable success and even led to the discovery of new types of these collections of stars such as “green peas” and “red spirals”.

Since then the project has expanded to use people power to monitor the Sun for dangerous eruptions, to search for exploding stars called supernovae, and to analyse how some galaxies merge together.

Dr Lintott said yesterday: “It’s strange to think that there are new things to discover about the Moon after all this time, but NASA’s new probe LRO is sending back the most detailed pictures ever.

“The view is as good as that the Apollo astronauts had – and that means that there just aren’t enough scientists to take a close look. We hope to create a catalogue of craters, and have some surprises too.

“We hope to find several lost spacecraft, like some of the Russian Luna probes that must be there somewhere. Who knows what there is to be found up there?”

Unlike on Earth, which is contantly eroded by weathering, craters on the lunar surface stay almost until eternity. That means that counting the number of craters on a particular part of the surface tells scientists how old it is. The scientists believe Moon Zoo will reveal the finer details of the Moon’s history.

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