The moon went from interesting to fascinating

Yvonne Pendleton: The moon has gone from questionably interesting to absolutely fascinating. It’s providing a laboratory, our nearest laboratory off-planet where we can go and actually explore and test.

In July 2010, astrophysicist Yvonne Pendleton became the new director of NASA’s Lunar Science Institute. She talked about some recent moon missions.

Yvonne Pendeton :  Because of the missions that have happened recently, especially LRO, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter , and LCROSS, the mission that impacted the moon and kicked up material that we are now analyzing, we’re understanding far more about the water and volatile materials on the moon.

The LCROSS mission – which sent a piece of a spacecraft crashing into the moon in October 2009 – found direct evidence of water in a crater at the moon’s south pole. Meanwhile, radar measurements from the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft estimate there could be 600 metric tons of water ice on the moon. Water on the moon makes a human presence there much more feasible.

Yvonne Pendleton: In many respects, the moon represents our history, our past, and also our future.

The Lunar Science Institute – which Pendleton now leads – has its headquarters at the Ames Research Center in San Jose, California. It’s what she called a “virtual institute.” Lunar scientists are spread across the world – and share their work online.

Yvonne Pendleton: I really like the idea of saving people time and money by being able to communicate on a regular basis, using technology, and make them comfortable enough to share results that maybe aren’t quite published yet. By providing that extra piece of the puzzle, they may enable another group to make a breakthrough or go in a different direction far sooner than they would have doing things the typical way.

Yvonne Pendleton told EarthSky she was excited about her new role as director of the NASA Lunar Science Institute.

Yvonne Pendleton:  After having  spent many years as a researcher myself, I’m just thrilled to be able to enable the research of so many others. I’m working with an absolutely fabulous team. I’ve come into an organization that has been well-run and is very robust and very healthy.

She described how the NASA Lunar Science Institute is organized.

Yvonne Pendleton:  The NASA Lunar Science Institute, and the NASA Astrobiology Institute, and future NASA virtual institutes, are sponsored by NASA.That means the funding comes from the Science Mission Directorate, and they select a location for the headquarters.  In this case, the headquarters is at Ames Research Center, here in Northern California. But we put out a call for proposals for research teams that are then selected, based on peer-review.  They will tell us what their ideas are, and a team of panelists will review their proposals.  We go through a very selective process to pick the teams that will then work for the next four years on that topic.  Our next call for proposals for additional teams will come out sometime next year.  We will be looking at ways to expand what we’re already doing, or maybe further support those areas that we’re already working on.

NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, said Pendleton, provides a model for the Lunar Science Institute as a “virtual institute.”

Yvonne Pendleton: Virtual institutes are wonderful in that they bring together teams of researchers that might not otherwise work together so closely at the time of the beginning parts of their research as they would in a virtual institute. This is not the first of the virtual institute that NASA has. We have a very successful sister institute, the NASA Astrobiology Institute. And we have borrowed heavily from what worked for them.  There are several other virtual institutes that are online to start up in the coming next year or so.

Dr. Pendleton spoke about her prior experience as an astrobiologist, a scientist studying the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe.

Yvonne Pendleton: The first twenty-five years of my career were spent doing basic research, primarily what then called exobiology.  Now a lot of what I do would fit under the astrobiology title. I’m very interested in organic material and how it was delivered to the early Earth. In the early days of my career, a virtual institute would have helped quite a bit, because as a young scientist, I could have joined a team and been involved with senior researchers at other institutions in a way that probably didn’t happen until I was further in my career. By the time I moved into senior management, the NASA virtual institutes were just starting to get going. Now I’ve been able to appreciate them from a management level looking back.  And although I still do research, I’m still active in astrophysics and astrobiology, I really appreciate it primarily as manager looking at how productive and efficient these institutes are at enabling the science of so many people.

Outreach to the public, said, Dr. Pendelton, is an important part of the NASA Lunar Science Institute.

Yvonne Pendleton: We care very much about the next generation, interesting them in science and math and engineering and technical fields, and the moon is providing one of those opportunities to grab hold of their imagination and show them that it isn’t just something that happened in the past. There are lunar missions ongoing today, and data is coming back that they can work on right now. I think that the moon is providing us with an excellent platform to engage the public and engage students. I’ve been very impressed with the education and public outreach that our teams are doing. The NLSI virtual institute is made up of research teams across the country. Each one of them has their own education and public outreach effort.  On top of that, scientists across the country that are even peripherally involved in any type of lunar science  are also going into schools and talking to public audiences. It’s really a tremendous effort.

August 2, 2010

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