Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Lunar Laser Ranging: The Millimeter Challenge

Lunar Laser Range Reflector arrays
The five Lunar Laser Range Reflector (LLR or LLRR) arrays deployed on the lunar surface, one each at the landing sites of Apollo 11, 14 and 15, and also to the Soviet rovers Lunokhod 1 and 2. The sublime accuracy of the decades-long measurements are priceless to astrophysics. Nearside view from "Synthetic View of the Moon," LROC Featured Image released October 15, 2013 [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].
T. W. Murphy, Jr.
Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences
University of California

Lunar laser ranging has provided many of the best tests of gravitation since the first Apollo astronauts landed on the Moon. The march to higher precision continues to this day, now entering the millimeter regime and promising continued improvement in scientific results. This review introduces key aspects of the technique, details the motivations, observables, and results for a variety of science objectives, summarizes the current state of the art, highlights new developments in the field, describes the modeling challenges and looks to the future of the enterprise.

Since 1969, lunar laser ranging (LLR) has provided high-precision measurements of the Earth-Moon distance, contributing to the foundations of our knowledge in gravitation and planetary physics. While being the most evident force of nature, gravity is in fact the weakest of the fundamental forces, and consequently the most poorly tested by modern experiments. Einstein's general relativity, currently our best description of gravity, is fundamentally incompatible with quantum mechanics and is likely to be replaced by a more complete theory in the future. A modified theory would, for example, predict small deviations in the solar system that, if seen, could have profound consequences for understanding the universe as a whole.

Utilizing reflectors placed on the lunar surface by American astronauts and Soviet rovers, LLR measures the round-trip travel time of short pulses of laser light directed to one reflector at a time. By mapping the shape of the lunar orbit, LLR is able to distinguish between competing theories of gravity. Range precision has improved from a few decimeters initially to a few millimeters recently, constituting a relative precision of 10-9 through 10-11. Leveraging the raw measurement across the Earth-Sun distance provides another two orders of magnitude for gauging relativistic effects in the Earth-Moon-Sun system.

The largest of the Apollo lunar laser range reflectors (LLRR) arrays, deployed at Hadley Rille by Scott and Irwin of the Apollo 15 surface expedition in February 1971. The instrument is still a regularly acquired critical part of on-going experimental astrophysics. AS15-85-11468 [NASA/JSC].
As LLR precision has improved over time, the technique has remained at the cutting edge of tests of gravitational phenomenology and probes of the lunar interior, and has informed our knowledge of Earth orientation, precession, and coordinate systems. LLR was last reviewed in this series in 1982; this update describes the key science drivers and findings of LLR, the apparatus and technologies involved, the requisite modeling techniques, and future prospects on all fronts.

Lunokhod 1 rover in its final parking place (38.315°N, 324.992°E) on the surface of Mare Imbrium. LROC Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) observation M175502049RE, orbit 10998, November 9, 2011, resolution 33 cm per pixel. View original Featured Image released March 14, 2012 (with enlarged inset) HERE [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].
LLR is expected to continue on its trajectory of improvement, maintaining a leading role in contributions to science. Other recent reviews by Merkowitz (2010) and by Muller, et al. (2012) complement the present one. The Merkowitz review, like this one, stresses gravitational tests of LLR, but with greater emphasis on associated range signals. Next-generation reflector and transponder technologies are more thoroughly covered. The Muller et al. review (for which this author is a co-author) covers a more complete history of LLR, has statistics on the LLR data set, and provides greater emphasis on geophysics, selenophysics, and coordinate systems.

This review is organized as follows: Section 1 provides an overview of the subject; Section 2 reviews the science delivered by LLR, with an emphasis on gravitation; Section 3 describes current LLR capabilities; Section 4 relates recent surprises from LLR, including the finding of the lost Lunokhod 1 reflector and evidence for dust accumulation on the reflectors; Section 5 treats the modeling challenges associated with millimeter-level LLR accuracy; and Section 6 covers possible future directions for the practice of LLR.

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