50 years ago on the 20th July 1969, the Apollo 11 module made "Moon-fall" for the first time in human history. This was one of the greatest achievements of our species and is rightfully still celebrated today.
In a special edition of Science, their news department and Editor-in-Chief, Jeremy Berg, celebrate the semicentennial anniversary of the landing, its scientific impact and explore the potential future of lunar exploration.
The Apollo 11 mission was ground-breaking
The special Science issue highlights the great discoveries and contributions the program made to planetary science. In particular, it discusses the important insights made possible through the study of returned lunar rock samples.
In contrast to Earth, the lunar surface experiences little, if any, geological activity. The constant recycling of materials on Earth has effectively scrubbed away most of the information of our planet's earliest days.
The Moon, on the other hand, has seen very little change over time providing exquisite preservation of material from the Solar System's formative years over 4 Billion years ago.
Before the Apollo mission, it was widely believed that planets formed cold and were the result of the gentle accumulation of asteroid-sized debris. But, thanks to retrieved samples from the Moon, the formation of objects, like the Moon, appears to be a much more dynamic process.
It is also far more violent than previously believed, characterized by high energy impacts and global-scale melting of rocks and minerals.
A gift that will keep on giving
Study of lunar rocks has also allowed scientists to develop a chronological record of cratering on its surface. This reconstructed record now forms the foundation for the age estimates of other planetary surfaces throughout the inner Solar System.
One contributor to the review, Richard Carlson, also suggests that the lunar samples that were brought to Earth half-century ago will continue to provide new insights into the formation and geology of other worlds.
The present and future of lunar exploration
The special issue also looks at other lunar exploration missions by other nations, like China. Specifically, a Policy Forum by Chunlai Li and colleagues explores some of the other more recent lunar missions.
For example, in early 2019, the China Lunar Exploration Program’s (CLEP) Chang’E-4 lander and Yutu-2 rover landed on the far side of the Moon. Chunlai and their team discuss China’s lunar exploration program and its goal of understanding the Moon through advances in space technology and international collaboration.
They note that the CLEP project is still in its infancy, but it has built a strong foundation for subsequent lunar exploration.
According to the authors, future missions are being developed to fly in the next decade and CLEP will develop its capabilities for both robotic and human exploration of the Moon’s surface.
The review was originally published in a special edition of Science.