Astrogeology Research Program
The Astrogeology Research Program is a program of the U.S. Geological Survey concerned with the study of planetary geology and planetary cartography. It is housed in the USGS Astrogeology Research Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. The Center was established in 1963 by Gene Shoemaker to provide lunar geologic mapping and to assist in training astronauts destined for the Moon as part of the Apollo project.
Since its inception, the Program has participated in processing and analyzing data from various missions to the planetary bodies in our solar system, assisting in finding potential landing sites for exploration vehicles, mapping our neighboring planets and their moons, and conducting research to better understand the origins, evolutions, and geologic processes operating on these bodies.
The Early Days
Gene Shoemaker founded the Astrogeology Research Program August 25, 1960. The research program started out as the Astrogeologic Studies Group at the USGS center in Menlo Park, California. The research program was moved to Flagstaff, Arizona (starting in December 1962 and completed in 1963). Flagstaff was chosen as the location due to its proximity to Meteor Crater and the volcanic craters and lava flows of the San Francisco Volcanic Field. Dr. Shoemaker retired from the USGS in 1993. He remained on Emeritus status with the USGS and maintained an affiliation with Lowell Observatory until his death in a car accident in Australia in 1997.
Gene was involved in the Lunar Ranger and Surveyor programs and continued with the manned Apollo programs. He culminated his lunar studies in 1994 with new data on the Moon from Project Clementine, for which he was the science-team leader. Gene collaborated closely with his wife, Carolyn, a planetary astronomer. The discovery of Comet Shoemaker-Levy (which impacted Jupiter in 1994) with colleague David Levy, gained them worldwide fame. This was just one of Gene's many great accomplishments.
Starting in 1963, the Astrogeology Research Program played an important role in training astronauts destined to explore the lunar surface and in supporting the testing of equipment for both manned and unmanned missions.
As part of the astronauts' training, USGS and NASA geoscientists gave lectures and field trips during the 1960s and early 1970s to teach astronauts the basics of terrestrial and lunar geology. Field trips included excursions into the Grand Canyon to demonstrate the development of geologic structure over time; Lowell Observatory (Flagstaff) and Kitt Peak National Observatory (Tucson); Meteor Crater east of Flagstaff ; and Sunset Crater cinder cone and nearby lava flows in the Flagstaff area. This training was essential to giving astronauts the skills and understanding to make observations about what they would see on the lunar surface and to collect samples for later study back on Earth.
The volcanic fields around Flagstaff have proven particularly useful in testing equipment and training astronauts. Cameras planned for use in the Surveyor project were tested on the Bonito Flow in Sunset Crater National Park because the lava flow appeared to be similar to flows on the lunar surface. A field of artificial impact craters were created in the Cinder Lakes volcanic field near Flagstaff to create a surface similar to the proposed first manned American landing site on the Moon.
Jack Schmitt joined the Astrogeology team as a geologist at the Flagstaff Science Center in 1964, having recently earned a doctorate degree from Harvard University. In addition to assisting in the geologic mapping of the Moon, he led the Lunar Field Geological Methods project. When NASA announced a special recruitment for scientist-astronauts in late 1964, Schmitt applied. Out of more than 1,000 applicants, six were chosen. Of those six, Joe Kerwin, Owen Garriott, and Edward Gibson would fly in the Skylab missions in 1973 and 1974, and Schmitt would go to the Moon on the Apollo 17 mission.
Today, the mission of the USGS Astrogeology Research Program is to establish and maintain geoscientific and technical expertise in planetary science and remote sensing to perform the following tasks:
- scientifically study and map extraterrestrial bodies,
- plan and conduct planetary exploration missions, and
- explore and develop new technologies in data processing and analysis, archiving, and distribution.
The Program's efforts are concentrated in three general areas:
- studying the origin and evolution of the planets and satellites in the solar system, specifically the geologic processes operating on these bodies (including study through the use of terrestrial analogs),
- developing increasingly sophisticated techniques of remote sensing and image processing to be used in the interpretation of planetary surfaces and processes and in terrestrial ground and space studies (such as Mission to Planet Earth, now titled NASA Earth Science Enterprise—ESE), and
- producing mosaic images, maps, and other cartographic products for the scientific community and the general public in support of terrestrial and planetary geoscientific studies.
The USGS Astrogeology Research Program participates in all phases of flight mission support through providing scientific input for mission planning, creating precise planetary images and maps, and supplying landing site maps and characterization.
Historic, recent, ongoing, and upcoming space missions involving the USGS Astrogeology Research Program include:
- Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter
- Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
- Cassini-Huygens Mission to Saturn
- Mars Exploration Rover Mission
- Mars Odyssey
- Clementine (lunar orbiter)
- Lunar Orbiter program
- Galileo (orbiting Jupiter)
- Mariner 10
- Mars Pathfinder
- Mars Global Surveyor
- Mars Observer, Mars Polar Lander, and Mars Climate Orbiter
- Mars Science Laboratory
- Deep Space 1
- Lunar Prospector
- NEAR Shoemaker (Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous)
- Magellan (Venus radar-mapping orbiter)
- Integrated Software for Imagers and Spectrometers (Isis) - a specialized software package developed by the USGS to process images and spectra collected by current and past NASA planetary missions.
- Robotic Lunar Observatory
- "Research Geology". USGS Astrogeology Science Center. U.S. Geological Survey. Retrieved 2013-08-14.
- "Maps / Products". USGS Astrogeology Science Center. US Geological Survey. Retrieved 2013-07-10.
- Wilhelms, Don (1993). "To a Rocky Moon: A Geologist's History of Lunar Exploration".
- Gerald G. Schaber, The U.S. Geological Survey, Branch of Astrogeology—A Chronology of Activities from Conception through the End of Project Apollo (1960-1973), U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2005-1190 (2005).
- David H. Levy, Shoemaker by Levy: The Man Who Made an Impact, Princeton Univ. Press, 303 pages (2000).
- "Mission Support". USGS Astrogeology Science Center. US Geological Survey. Retrieved 2013-07-10.