Lunar and Planetary Institute

Apollo 17 Mission

Science Experiments - Lunar Sounder

The VHF antenna from the Apollo 17 Lunar Sounder Experiment extends above the Service Module.Diagram of the Lunar Sounder Experiment.Left: The VHF antenna from the Apollo 17 Lunar Sounder Experiment extends above the Service Module.

Right: Diagram of the Lunar Sounder Experiment. The VHF and HF antennas were used by the experiment. CSAR is the experiment's electronics box in the Service Module and the Optical Recorder was used to record the experiment's results. The high-gain antenna was used to communicate with Earth and was not a part of the Lunar Sounder Experiment.

The Apollo Lunar Sounder Experiment was performed on Apollo 17. This experiment used radar to study the Moon's surface and interior. Radar waves with wavelengths between 2 and 60 meters were transmitted through a series of antennas near the back of the Service Module. After the waves were reflected by the Moon, they were received using the same antennas and the data was recorded on film for analysis on Earth. The primary purpose of this experiment was to "see" into the upper 2 kilometers of the Moon's crust in a manner somewhat analogous to using seismic waves to study the internal structure of the Moon. This was possible because very long radar wavelengths were used and because the Moon is very dry, which allowed the radar waves to penetrate much deeper into the Moon than would have been possible if water were present in lunar rocks. (A radar experiment on the space shuttle has been similarly used to map ancient river valleys beneath the Sahara Desert.) This experiment also provided very precise information about the Moon's topography. In addition to studying the Moon, the experiment also measured radio emissions from the Milky Way Galaxy.

This experiment revealed structures beneath the surface in both Mare Crisium and Mare Serenitatis. These layers were observed in several different parts of these basins and are therefore believed to be widespread features. Based on the properties of the reflected radar waves, the structures are believed to be layering within the basalt that fills both of these mare basins. In Mare Serenitatis, layers were detected at depths of 0.9 and 1.6 kilometers below the surface. In Mare Crisium, a layer was detected at a depth of 1.4 kilometers below the surface. The bottom of the mare basalts were apparently not detected by this experiment. However, in Mare Crisium the Lunar Sounder Experiment results were combined with other observations to estimate a total basalt thickness of between 2.4 and 3.4 kilometers.

The Lunar Sounder Experiment also contributed to our understanding of wrinkle ridges on the Moon. These long, low ridges are found in many of the lunar maria. Most lunar geologists believe that these ridges formed when the Moon's surface was deformed by motion along faults ("moonquakes") in the Moon's crust more than 3 billion years ago. The weight of several kilometers of mare basalt in these areas caused the Moon's surface to sag somewhat, and this motion caused the surface to buckle in some places, forming the wrinkle ridges. However, other scientists suggested that these ridges are volcanic features, formed by the flow of magma either on the Moon's surface or within the crust. The Lunar Sounder Experiment studied several wrinkle ridges in southern Mare Serenitatis in detail, providing information about both the topography of these ridges and about structures in the crust below these ridges. These results support the idea that wrinkle ridges formed primarily by motions along faults.