Out-of-This-World Research: Moon Investigator Sets His Sights on Mercury

July 17, 2019

On the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing, Baylor University planetary geophysicist is collaborating with NASA to analyze spacecraft data of the planet closest to the Sun

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WACO, Texas (July 17, 2019) — Fifty years ago, America loved its astronauts to the Moon and back. And this week, as the country marks the historic liftoff and landing, a Baylor University planetary geophysicist is over the Moon about researching a new space frontier.

Peter James, Ph.D., founder of Baylor University’s Planetary Research Group, is collaborating with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to study the planet Mercury’s crust. He has taken part in three NASA missions and specializes in using of spacecraft data to study the crusts and mantles of planets and moons.

What’s in it for Earth?

“The ultimate aim of using geophysical techniques to explore the structure and inner workings of rocky planets in our solar system is to understand how Earth-like planets form and evolve,” said James, assistant professor of planetary geophysics in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences.

An example is a recent study he led, which found a mysterious huge mass of material on the far side of the Moon — beneath the largest crater in our solar system. The mass — at least five times larger than the Big Island of Hawaii — may contain metal from an asteroid that may have crashed into the Moon and formed the crater.

In this Q&A, James tells about what’s in the works with Mercury:

Q: Why did you all choose Mercury over any other planet? What do we already know about it? Or rather, what do you all know that us non-planetary scientist types may not know?

A: Many people don’t know that NASA recently sent a robotic spacecraft called “MESSENGER” to orbit Mercury for the first time. Four planets in our solar system have a surface made of rock (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars), but each of those planets is unique in a weird way. Mercury is particularly exciting to study because we got to see parts of that planet for the first time.

Q: Since we aren’t anywhere near setting foot on Mercury, how will you all go about studying Mercury?

A: The MESSENGER spacecraft ran out of fuel and crashed in 2015, but it collected a lot of data that still needs to be analyzed. For example, my current project with some engineers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is to analyze the tracking data of the spacecraft so that we can calculate the density of the bedrock on Mercury.

Q: What are some things you are particularly curious about when it comes to Mercury?

A: Mercury has a lot of weird features that don’t exist anywhere else. It has thousands of pits that we call “hollows,” and they’re clearly different from craters but we haven’t yet figured out how they form. Mercury also has some broad bulges called “rises” that are about a thousand miles wide and about a mile tall. We haven’t figured out what those are either.

Perhaps the most exciting thing we discovered about Mercury is that it has ice. Even though most of the planet is extremely hot from being so close to the Sun, the bottoms of some craters near the north pole never see sunlight, so those areas stay cold enough to have ice. Sure enough, that’s what we found! I was on a team that used the spacecraft’s laser to measure the thickness of these ice deposits, but there is still a lot we want to learn about how the ice got there and whether it could be mined by future astronauts.

Q: You don’t look like you can be anywhere near old enough to have seen the actual liftoff and landing to the Moon. How did you get interested in planetary geophysics?

A: I always loved maps: contour maps from hiking with the Boy Scouts, raised relief maps, globes, you name it. I was also fascinated with the idea that you can use math to make discoveries about the world. Solar-system geology involves a lot of maps and a lot of math, so it ended up being a perfect fit for me.

Q: NASA’s goal is to return to the Moon by 2024 in a bigger capsule with more astronauts and long-term exploration there. Some critics say that aim is unrealistic about budget concerns. What are your hopes?

A: My engineering friends tell me that it’s a challenging goal time-wise and budget-wise. At the very least, I’m excited that human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit is an aspiration again.

Q: I know that you have a moon rock yourself. How did you come to have it? Anything remarkable about it that sets it apart from other rocks — other than its place of origin?

A: All the rock samples collected by the Apollo astronauts are strictly curated by Johnson Space Center in Houston, but I do have a lunar meteorite that was found in northwest Africa. Whenever an asteroid hits the Moon, it kicks up other rocks . . . It’s like when you jump onto a mattress next to someone and they bounce off. Some of these rocks end up falling down to Earth, where scientists like me can study them. If you think that’s cool, I have tiny meteorite rocks from Mars and Vesta as well. These rocks are thoroughly pulverized from getting knocked into space and we don’t know where on the planets they came from, so there’s still no substitute for sending an astronaut or a robotic shovel to collect samples.

Q: On your website you have this quote by the late author and theologian C.S. Lewis: “Aim for heaven, and you will get Earth thrown in." That’s a great quote. Does it have spiritual meaning for you? Practical application/inspiration for your research? Both?

A: In Christian circles we talk about having a “kingdom mindset,” meaning that we keep heaven in mind while making choices in our daily lives, and that our life choices are the better for it. That also encapsulates the best ideals of space exploration: Each of the Apollo astronauts would tell you that going above the Earth and looking down fundamentally changed his worldview (no pun intended). A lot of social and political maneuvering tends to be rooted in selfishness, but out in space you realize exactly how much larger and more complex the universe is than our personal ambitions. That’s good for society, and it gives us a richer understanding of Christian theology as well: The gospel and the idea of “grace” are all the more extraordinary when we realize just how small and insignificant we are in the grand scheme of creation.

There’s yet another level of significance in that C.S. Lewis quote for our research group, because we want to study other planets with the goal of understanding Earth better. No planet has geology quite like Earth, but we can learn about things like earthquakes and volcanoes and erosion from a different angle when we see them at work on another planet.

Q: Given the chance, would you ever want to be an astronaut yourself and plant your feet on ground other than Earth?

A: If a younger me had known that NASA would get serious about returning to the Moon, I would have thrown my hat in the ring. As it stands, I’m too young to have witnessed the Apollo missions and too old to join the Astronaut Corps. I will certainly live vicariously through the next man or woman to set foot on the Moon!

*James served on the science team of the the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL), and the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) mission.

Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 17,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 90 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.

The College of Arts & Sciences is Baylor University’s oldest and largest academic division, consisting of 25 academic departments and seven academic centers and institutes. The more than 5,000 courses taught in the College span topics from art and theatre to religion, philosophy, sociology and the natural sciences. Faculty conduct research around the world, and research on the undergraduate and graduate level is prevalent throughout all disciplines. Visit www.baylor.edu/artsandsciences.