UMD Geologist Helped Develop Lunar Instrument Chosen for Upcoming NASA Artemis Mission

The Lunar Environment Monitoring System is designed to track the moon’s seismic activity during NASA’s Artemis III mission.

NASA chose the first science instruments designed for astronauts to deploy on the surface of the moon during Artemis III, the agency’s first crewed mission to the lunar surface in over 50 years currently planned for 2026. Among the selected instruments was the Lunar Environment Monitoring Station (LEMS), a seismometer package developed by a team of researchers including Nicholas Schmerr, an associate professor of geology at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMD). Once installed near the lunar south pole, LEMS will collect valuable seismic data about the lunar environment and its interior, which will help prepare NASA to establish a long term presence on other planetary bodies.

“Our primary goal is to have the mission record moonquakes and characterize the moon’s seismicity,” explained Schmerr, who was also named deputy principal investigator of the LEMS project. “This means being patient and listening for moonquakes, which can be caused by things like impacts hitting the moon or internal quaking from deep inside the lunar interior. With enough seismic events, we’ll be able to use our tools to study the moon’s deeper structure.”

Team members during final preparation of the LEMS Engineering Units for thermal-vacuum testing. During this test, the LEMS prototype was subjected to the vacuum and harsh thermal conditions that mimic the lunar surface to demonstrate its resilience and ability to sustain itself. Image courtesy of NASA MSFC

Led by University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) planetary scientist Mehdi Benna, the LEMS project is the result of a yearslong collaboration between UMBC, UMD, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the University of Arizona, Morehead State University and Washington University in St. Louis.

The size of a carry-on airplane suitcase, LEMS is designed to carry out continuous, long-term monitoring of the seismic environment—namely ground motion from moonquakes—in the lunar south polar region. The mini-monitoring station will also analyze the regional structure of the moon’s crust and mantle, which will add valuable information to lunar formation and evolution models. LEMS is intended to operate on the lunar surface from three months up to two years and may become a key station in a future global lunar geophysical network, providing vital information for future space missions.

“Artemis III will be visiting a location on the moon unlike any visited by Apollo, and as such, we don’t have many details about the thickness of the crust and what the mantle looks like,” Schmerr said. “LEMS will give us additional insight into what’s going on in the moon’s subsurface.”

Designed to withstand extreme conditions

When scientists first started working on the LEMS project in 2018, the research team realized that technology headed to the lunar surface had to be durable enough to survive the moon’s harsh conditions for a long period of time.

“The lunar environment is one of the harshest environments in the solar system. It’s hard to survive [on] the moon because it rotates very slowly around itself—daytime on the moon lasts about 15 Earth days, and night on the moon lasts 15 Earth days,” Benna explained. “Because the moon doesn't have an atmosphere, the days are very hot and the nights get really cold.”

With these temperature extremes in mind, the team needed to protect the LEMS equipment from the lunar environment so that it could continue to monitor seismic waves and communicate the data back to scientists on Earth after being deployed. With careful engineering, the researchers developed methods and tools to keep LEMS safe, intact and relatively self-sustaining—all the while staying as power efficient as possible. 

“We constructed ways to reduce or eliminate heat pathways away from the internal electronics,” Schmerr said. “For example, we plan to have the LEMS package isolate itself from the ground with a set of skids underneath and have a series of thermal blankets around the exterior that will keep extreme temperatures out and reduce the need to run energy-draining heaters during the night. We also plan to keep our seismometers safe by burying them because even 10 centimeters of overlying lunar soil can help insulate them from the lunar day and night cycles.”

The station’s battery is designed to self-charge using power stored by its solar panels during the day to keep the station operational at night. The LEMS instrument is expected to autonomously beam its data to one of NASA’s Deep Space Network ground stations once a month via its own communication antennas and radio system.

“The Apollo 11 of our generation”

With the data retrieved from LEMS’ two seismometers, the team hopes to learn the structure of the local crust and mantle—and gain unprecedented insight into the moon’s evolutionary history, as well as the intricacies of planetary formation.

“Artemis III is the Apollo 11 of our generation—that’s significant. Landing astronauts on the moon doesn’t get any easier 50 years later,” Benna said. “Being a part of this adventure is extremely exciting.”

As deputy principal investigator for the project, Schmerr will coordinate interactions with the larger Artemis III ScienceTeam, and will support development of a concept of operations for instrument deployment.” He believes that NASA’s return to the moon and LEMS’s arrival on the lunar surface is the first step into a new era of lunar seismology and space exploration.

“The work we’ve done here to develop LEMS has helped us hone our ability to create technology that’s low power, compact and durable while staying effective. We’re also learning much more about the worlds beyond Earth,” Schmerr said. “It’s all laying the groundwork for more opportunities to explore planets like Mars and beyond.”


This article was adapted from text provided by NASA and UMBC.


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