“Flagstaff is a fantastic place to be for planetary science,” said Justin Hagerty at the U.S. Geological Survey Astrogeology Science Center. “The [geologic] features that are here in Flagstaff can be seen on other planets and the moon,” the research scientist explained, noting the area’s volcanic fields, cinder cones and Meteor Crater.
“The volcanic flows of basalt that you see here are very common on the terrestrial planets – Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars – and the moon. The Grand Canyon can help us understand how Valles Marineris formed on Mars,” he explained. Valles Marineris is one of the longest canyons in our solar system.
“In addition, Flagstaff is a Dark Sky City with amazing viewing that makes this a great place to study planetary science. And for whatever reason, there is a focus of geology scientists here, including those from the Naval Observatory, Lowell, the NAU geology program and the USGS. ASU and U of A, some of the best universities for space study, are relatively close by,” Hagerty added.
“Over the past decade, the moon has sprung to life. We’re learning new stuff about it all the time,” said Hagerty, who is co-author of a recent report that describes how recent NASA missions have changed scientists’ understanding of whether water exists on the moon. Hagerty’s findings, published Aug. 25 in Nature Geoscience, show evidence of water locked in mineral grains on the surface of the moon that came from an unknown source deep beneath the surface.
“We saw a large amount of thorium on Bullialdus Crater, an impact crater on the moon. It stuck out like a sore thumb and I knew something was going on there,” said the planetary scientist. The central peak of the crater is made up of a type of rock that forms deep within the lunar crust when magma is trapped underground. The deep rock was exposed by the impact that formed Bullialdus Crater.
Hagerty submitted a proposal, earned a NASA grant to study the area and subcontracted with scientists from John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland to help with the study. He explained, “They have knowledge in spectral reflectance that I didn’t have. When we studied the central peak inside the crater, it appeared to have water. We said, ‘That’s weird, there’s no water on the moon.’
“We didn’t know we were going to find water. We were going for rhyolite, which is found with water. We have rhyolite right here on the San Francisco Peaks. But when they [the scientists at John Hopkins] looked at it, they said no, it’s not rhyolite. We actually detected H20,” said Hagerty. The microscopic amounts of water detected were measured in parts per million.
“For the past 10 years there has been a renaissance of understanding of the moon. About five years ago, a new analysis showed small amounts of water in glass spheres collected by Apollo. They were small amounts of water, previously unseen. Then, about two years ago, scientists seem to think they saw water all over the surface of the moon. But that turns out to be hydrogen and not H20, the compound of hydrogen and two parts oxygen that is water,” Hagerty explained. Scientists continue to debate about this.
“Arizona has always had a huge role in space exploration, and it still does,” said Hagerty, who moved to Flagstaff in 2007 to join the Astrogeology Science Center. “My wife and I love the West and love living at high elevations. We have never lived below a mile high. Working for the USGS itself is the standard to live up to – the end all, be all for geology jobs. And, Flagstaff has a lot of great places to eat vegan,” he said, describing the decision to come to Northern Arizona.
“Astrogeology got started right here in Flagstaff. Astrogeology is a field of science invented by Gene Shoemaker. He made the discovery that Meteor Crater was produced by a meteor striking Earth and then applied that to the craters of the moon. Astrogeology takes what we know here and applies it to other planets and the moon,” Hagerty stated. “Now there are 30 different universities across the world that offer graduate degrees in astrogeology. I am biased, but I believe that some of the strongest programs are right here in the U.S.”
Last year, President Obama awarded to Hagerty the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.
“Prior to graduate school, I, like many people, had assumed that the moon was a dull, lifeless body,” said Hagerty. “However, after having the opportunity to learn from experts in lunar science and to examine lunar sample and remote sensing data myself, it quickly became apparent that the moon is an extraordinary planetary body and that we have only scratched the surface of truly understanding how the moon formed and evolved. To have an opportunity to play a role in shaping our cumulative knowledge of the moon is a humbling experience.”
Hagerty is currently the curator of the USGS Meteor Crater Sample Collection, as well as the Chair of NASA’s Regional Planetary Image Facility Network. He has been the principal investigator on twelve NASA studies and collaborated on an additional six studies. His research has examined not only lunar geochemistry, but also lunar mapping, asteroid mapping and impact cratering. FBN