Not Just A Useless Rock — How The Moon Protects Our Earth And Helps Scientists Explore Space

Science Daily reports that a scientist at the University of Alabama has found an extraordinary use for the Earth’s moon.

“This type of ‘time domain’ astrophysics is a new and evolving discipline in which variability gives insights into the nature of cosmic processes, helping us probe supernovae, explore black holes and the life cycle of matter and energy in the galaxy and beyond.”

Dr. Richard Miller has developed a technique called Lunar Occultation. When a cosmic radiation source is eclipsed by the moon, scientists take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the temporary obstruction, taking a gamma ray “snapshot” of the universe beyond.

Miller told reporters that using the Earth itself for such an eclipse technique would not work as well, because an airless environment produces optimal results.

“The technique gives optimal performance around airless planetary bodies, which is why we’ve gone to the moon. In addition, we have developed a new data analysis toolbox that allows the occultation data to be rapidly studied to identify the specific cosmic sources and characterize their radiation output.”

The fact that the moon’s radiation background and atmosphere are well understood is also very helpful, says Miller.

“A key benefit of the moon in astrophysics is that it has no atmosphere or magneto-sphere. It also has a relatively stable and well-understood radiation background. I believe this gives us a real opportunity to think out of the box with this new approach. It supports important astrophysics goals, overcomes technical and cost challenges of other techniques and ultimately helps further establish the moon as a platform for science.”

Miller’s project has been successful thus far, and there are plans to launch a mission in conjunction with NASA. Miller and colleagues will send objects into orbit around the moon, where they will take snapshots of the universe from a variety of angles and positions, taking advantage of opportune moments when distant radiation sources are eclipsed.

Miller says a huge advantage of his technique is that it is more cost-effective than existing techniques.

“The challenge of those big technology driven, traditional approaches is what got me thinking, ‘How can we do the same science in a more cost-effective way? While the instrument that will orbit the moon will be fairly large, it will be not be nearly as complex as other large telescopes that seek to probe this part of the electromagnetic spectrum. LOX is analogous to a large planetary spacecraft, and we have extensive experience operating similar smaller instruments at the moon and elsewhere.”

It’s not the only exciting proposed purpose for the moon that is gathering momentum this year. In January, Science News reported that a plan to build villages on the moon was picking up steam, with investors beginning to give money to fund a plan developed by the European Space Agency.

The plan was discussed at a recent symposium, attended by industry experts and researchers including Clive Neal from the University of Notre Dame.

“The ESA’s vision is that the moon villages could serve as a potential springboard for future human missions to Mars and potentially other destinations.”

Not only does the moon help humans explore space, but it also helps to sustain the Earth’s magnetic field, thus protecting humanity, according to Science Daily.

The Earth’s magnetic field is produced by molten iron moving in the Earth’s outer core, and protects the Earth from charged particles and radiation.

“The Earth’s magnetic field permanently protects us from the charged particles and radiation that originate in the Sun. This shield is produced by the geodynamo, the rapid motion of huge quantities of liquid iron alloy in the Earth’s outer core.”

Scientists had long expected to find that the molten iron in the Earth’s core was cooling over time; however, recent research revealed that it had not cooled as much as expected.

Researchers believe they understand why: the movement of the moon has probably kept the molten iron moving, much as the moon causes the ocean to rise and fall.

In keeping the molten iron active and on the move, the moon has contributed to sustaining the Earth’s magnetic field, thereby helping to protect humans from harmful radiation.

“To maintain this magnetic field until the present day, the classical model required the Earth’s core to have cooled by around 3 000 °C over the past 4.3 billion years. Now, astronomers suggest that, on the contrary, its temperature has fallen by only 300 °C. The action of the Moon, overlooked until now, is thought to have compensated for this difference and kept the geodynamo active.”

[Image via NASA/ Getty Images]