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Tomorrow Today

What makes the moon so fascinating?

Interview with planetary geologist Harald Hiesinger

With us to talk more about the moon is planetary geologist Harald Hiesinger from the University of Münster. He’s been described in the media here as "Germany’s Man in the Moon"

HH: Thank you for having me.

Absolutely. Why is the moon so important for us?

For us planetologists, the moon is really like a sort of history book that allows us to look back to the early phases of the solar system. And by doing this we can better understand the rest of the solar system, including our own planet Earth. So therefore the moon is a key object for the understanding of the rest of the solar system.

Is the Earth older than the moon?

No, our planets formed roughly at the same time. The moon formed by a big collision with a Mars-sized object, with early Earth, but they are all the same age.

All the same age. Now you yourself specialise in volcanic activity on the lunar landscapes, can you tell us a bit more about that?

Yes, so if you look up to the moon, all these black areas that you see with your naked eye, those are actually made out of a specific type of rock - it's called basalt. That's a very common rock here on Earth too. So what it tells you is that the moon actually had vocanic erruptions to bring these rocks up to the surface, so they flood very large areas with deep impact basins and so by studying them we can learn something about the thermal evolution and the history of the moon.

Is it difficult to have your subject that you study so far away?

No, not at all. We have very good instruments now in orbit around the moon. We have the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbitor mission which is about fifty kilometers above the surface, and you are taking pictures of about half a metre resolution so it's not a problem. And of course we have the Apollo and lunar samples that we have still in our laboratories.

So there's plenty of material that you can work from. How about the ESA - they have halted a project recently: the Lunar Lander Project. How much of a blow was that for you?

Well that's really bad you know. This would would have been a really interesting mission, because it was planned to land on a crator rim at the south pole that is always in sunlight, and it's actually close to a crator floor which is always in permanent shadow, so that would have been a really interesting place to go, because in these shadowed areas you could actually have water ice available, for space missions, for rocket fuel, for whatever you want to use it.

Now they did mention water ice in the report, can you tell us WHY that's important?

Well as I said, it's an incredible resource. If you go to the moon and you don't have to bring your water, then your mission's going to be much cheaper. You can basically live off the land in this respect and if you can access the water, that would be really fantastic for any future exploration of the moon.

Now we have the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, we have plenty of other things that we have sent out there - why do we even need manned missions anymore?

Well, it's really a question of what kind of scientific question do you have. For some questions you need humans at the surface, because they can make decisions very quickly, and they have the broad background knowledge right available at their fingertips. For other questions, robots are just as good. So it really depends what you want to do at the surface.

Would you go to the moon yourself?

Absolutely, I would go immediately - right now!

But it's not exactly a cheap hobby either, is it?

No it's not cheap, but on the other hand, these missions to the moon are relatively cheap. We are not talking about multi-billion dollar missions that go to the outer solar system. So you can go to the moon for relatively cheap money, and I think it's worth every cent.

Professor Hiesinger, thank you so much for joining us here at Tomorrow Today.