Mission to the Mantle: Michael Duke's Moonrise (1999-2009)

This NASA image of the gibbous Moon by photographer Lauren Harnett includes an intruder — the International Space Station (ISS) (lower right). The Moon, last visited by humans in December 1972, is about 384,400 kilometers away; ISS, permanently occupied since November 2000, is about 1000 times nearer Earth.

A casual glance at the Moon's disk reveals signs of ancient violence. Nearside, the lunar hemisphere we can see from Earth, is marked by gray areas set against white. Some are noticeably circular. The Apollo expeditions revealed that these relatively smooth basalt plains are scars left by large impactors — comets or asteroids — that pummeled the Moon more than 3.5 billion years ago. These gray areas cover about 20% of the lunar surface. They are concentrated on the nearside, the lunar hemisphere that faces the Earth.

An Earth-based observer cannot view the largest and oldest giant impact basin because it is out of view on the Moon's hidden farside. South Pole-Aitken (SPA) Basin is about 2500 kilometers wide, making it perhaps the largest impact scar in the Solar System. Lunar Orbiter data revealed its existence in the 1960s, though little was known of it until the 1990s, when the U.S. Clementine and Lunar Prospector polar orbiters mapped surface chemistry over the entire Moon. Their data showed that the basin floor probably includes material excavated from the Moon's lower crust and upper mantle. In the first decades of the 21st century, laser altimeters on the U.S. Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and Japanese Kaguya spacecraft confirmed that SPA includes the lowest places on the Moon.

Lunar hemispheres centered on the Moon's highest point (left) and lowest point (right). Both occur in the Moon's Farside hemisphere and are believed to be associated with the excavation of the South Pole-Aitken Basin perhaps 4 billion years ago. On this U.S. Geologic Survey topographic map, blue indicates low areas and gray and black indicate high areas. 
South Pole-Aitken (SPA) Basin with major features labeled. The 140-kilometer-wide crater Antoniadi includes a 12-kilometer-wide unnamed crater, the floor of which is more than nine kilometers below the mean lunar radius (the lunar equivalent of Earth's sea level). It is the lowest point on the Moon. Image credit: NASA/DSFPortree.

Michael Duke, a retired NASA Johnson Space Center geologist with the Colorado School of Mines, participated in both Apollo and 1990s lunar explorations. In 1999, Duke was Principal Investigator (PI) leading a team that proposed a robotic SPA sample-return mission in NASA's low-cost Discovery Program. To fit under Discovery's mission cost cap of $150 million (in Fiscal Year 1992 dollars), Duke's team proposed "the simplest-possible mission" — a single lander with no sample-collecting rover, a lunar-surface stay-time of just 24 hours, and a low-capability lunar-orbiting radio-relay satellite (needed because farside is not in line-of-sight radio contact with Earth). Believing that these limitations added up to a high risk of mission failure, NASA rejected the 1999 Discovery proposal.

In 2002, however, the National Research Council's planetary science Decadal Survey declared SPA sample return to be a high scientific priority and, at the same time, proposed a new class of competitively selected medium-cost missions. The latter marked the genesis of NASA's New Frontiers Program, which originally had a cost cap per mission of $700 million.

The New Horizons Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) flyby mission was already under development when NASA created the New Frontiers Program. NASA gave New Frontiers a highly visible first mission by adopting New Horizons into the program. Selection of the KBO mission came to be regarded as the first New Frontiers proposal cycle, though it included no competition. NASA had taken a similar approach when it made Mars Pathfinder its first Discovery Program mission in 1992.

Geologist Michael Duke in 2004. Image credit: NASA.
Duke's team immediately began to upgrade its SPA proposal for the second New Frontiers proposal cycle. In October 2002, Duke described the new SPA mission design at the 53rd International Astronautical Federation Congress (the Second World Space Congress) in Houston, Texas. To avoid tipping off competing New Frontiers proposers, his paper provided only limited technical details.

Duke argued that the SPA sample-return mission could collect ancient deep crust and mantle rocks without a costly rover. Clementine and Lunar Prospector had shown that at least half of the surface material in the central part of SPA was native to the basin, so stood a good chance of having originated deep within the Moon.

Furthermore, Apollo demonstrated that any lunar site is likely to yield a wide assortment of samples because the Moon's low gravity and surface vacuum enable asteroid impacts to widely scatter rock fragments. The Apollo 11 mission to Mare Tranquillitatis, for example, found and returned to Earth rocks blasted from the Moon's light-hued Highlands. Duke proposed that the SPA sample-return lander sift about 100 kilograms of lunar dirt to gather a one-kilogram sample consisting of thousands of small rock fragments. These would have many origins, but a large percentage would be likely to have originated in the Moon's deep crust and mantle.

A SPA sample-return lander sifts lunar dust in quest of small fragments of lower crust and upper mantle material. The gray dome mounted sideways on the right side of the lander, above the sample arm attachment point, is the sample-return capsule for carrying a one-kilogram sample through Earth's atmosphere. Image credit: NASA.

NASA rejected the Discovery SPA mission in part out of concern for lander safety. Duke noted that, with the New Frontiers Program's $700-million cost cap, the SPA sample-return mission could include two landers. This would provide a backup in case one crashed. He pointed out, however, that automated Surveyor spacecraft of the 1960s had found the Moon to be a relatively easy place on which to land even without the benefits of 21st-century hazard-avoidance technology. Two landers would also increase the already good chance that the mission could collect samples representative of the basin's earliest history.

A $700-million budget would also enable a relay satellite "more competent" than its bare-bones Discovery predecessor. It might be placed in a halo orbit around the Earth-Moon L2 point, 64,500 kilometers behind the Moon as viewed from Earth. From that position, the satellite would permit continuous radio contact between Earth and the landers. A satellite in lunar orbit could remain in line-of-sight contact with both the landers and Earth for only brief periods.

NASA had argued that a single day on the Moon provided too little time to modify the SPA Discovery mission if it suffered difficulties. The SPA New Frontiers mission would, therefore, remain on the Moon for longer. Duke noted, however, that stay-time would probably be limited to the length of the lunar daylight period (14 Earth days) because designing the twin landers to withstand the frigid lunar night would boost their cost.

In February 2004, Duke's mission — christened Moonrise — became one of two SPA sample-return missions proposed in the second New Frontiers proposal cycle. In July 2004, NASA awarded Moonrise and a Jupiter polar orbiter called Juno $1.2 million each for additional study. In May 2005, the space agency selected Juno for full development.

Juno's selection did not end proposals for SPA Basin sample-return, though it did mark the beginning of the end of Duke's involvement. In the third New Frontiers proposal cycle, which began in 2009, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Lockheed Martin/Washington University in St. Louis team led by Brad Jolliff, Duke's deputy PI in the 2003-2004 cycle, proposed a SPA Basin mission called MoonRise. In 2011, the SPA sample-return mission was again selected as a New Frontiers finalist, but it lost out in the final selection to the OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sample-return mission. MoonRise was not selected as a finalist in the 2017 New Frontiers cycle.


"Sample Return from the Lunar South Pole-Aitken Basin," M. Duke, Advances in Space Research, Volume 31, Number 11, June 2003, pp. 2347-2352.

"NASA Selects Two 'New Frontiers' Mission Concepts for Further Study," D. Savage, NASA Press Release 04-222, NASA Headquarters, 16 July 2004.

NASA Facts: MoonRise - A Sample-Return Mission From the Moon's South Pole-Aitken Basin, NASA Facts, JPL 400-1408, June 2010.

"MoonRise: Sample Return from the South Pole-Aitken Basin," L. Akalai, B. Jolliff, and D. Papanastassiou; presentation to the International Planetary Probe Workshop, Barcelona, Spain, 17 June 2010.

Personal communication, B. Jolliff to D. Portree, 3 March 2018.

More Information

Peeling Away the Layers of Mars (1966)

An Apollo Landing Near the Great Ray Crater Tycho (1969)

Catching Some Comet Dust: Giotto II (1985)

Lunar GAS (1987)


  1. This unlucky, but very interesting mission definitively refuses to die.
    It is still fighting for a piece of a New Frontier budget.

  2. A:

    SPA sample return refuses to die, but I'm not sure whether Moonrise/MoonRise has been reproposed in NF cycle 4. I didn't turn up anything on it, though perhaps that's understandable because proposing teams don't want to help their competitors. I gather that we'll learn if Moonrise has been re-proposed as early as next month, at which time I'll update this post or perhaps write a more detailed post about the JPL/LM/WUSTL SPA mission MoonRise. I already plan a post on OSCAR, the joint Orion/MoonRise concept.


  3. Sooner or later this type of mission will begin to happen & not just limited to the moon. If, as "everybody says", we are to exploit the resources of the solar system then we need to know what resouces are available. In situ analysis is great for a preliminary overview but is very limited compared to a fully equipped Earth based laboratory.


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