Apache Point Observatory Lunar Laser-ranging Operation

Apache Point Observatory Lunar Laser-ranging Operation
APOLLO shooting a laser at the Moon. The laser pulse is reflected from the retroreflectors on the Moon (see below) and returned to the telescope. The round-trip time tells the distance to the Moon to great accuracy. In this picture the Moon is very over-exposed, needed to make the laser beam visible.
Apollo 15 Lunar Ranging Retro-Reflector (LRRR). The small circles are corner cubes, which reflect light directly back in the direction from which it came.

The Apache Point Observatory Lunar Laser-ranging Operation, or APOLLO,[1] is a project at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico.[2] It is an extension and advancement of previous Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment, which uses retroreflectors on the Moon to track changes in lunar orbital distance and motion.

Using telescopes on Earth, the reflectors on the Moon, and accurate timing of laser pulses, by the early 2000s scientists could measure and predict the orbit of the Moon to an accuracy of a few centimeters. This already impressive accuracy (the Moon is typically about 385,000 km away) provides the best known test of many aspects of our theories of gravity. APOLLO improves this even further, measuring the distance between the Moon to an accuracy of a few millimeters. Using this information, scientists will be able to further test various aspects of gravity: do the Earth and the Moon react the same to gravity despite their different compositions? Does the energy content of the Earth and the Moon react to gravity in the same way as Einstein predicts? In general, does Einstein's General Relativity correctly predict the motion of the Moon, or are new theories required?

The APOLLO collaboration built their apparatus on the 3.5 meter telescope at Apache Point in southern New Mexico. By using a large telescope at a site with good atmospheric "seeing", the APOLLO collaboration gets much stronger reflections than any existing facilities. (Strong is a relative term here—APOLLO records approximately one returned laser photon per pulse, as opposed to the roughly 0.01 photon-per-pulse average experienced by previous LLR facilities.) The stronger return signal from APOLLO translates to much more accurate measurements.


History and motivation

High precision Lunar Laser Ranging (LLR) started soon after the Apollo 11 astronauts left the first retroreflector on the Moon.[3] Additional reflectors were left by the Apollo 14 and Apollo 15 astronauts, and two French-built reflector arrays were placed on the Moon by the Soviet Luna 17 (Lunokhod 1) and Luna 21 (Lunokhod 2) lunar rover missions. Over the years since, many groups and experiments have used this technique to study the behavior of the Earth-Moon system, investigating gravitational and other effects.[4][5]

For the first few years, the distance between the observatory and the reflectors could be measured to about 25 cm accuracy. Improved techniques and equipment lead to accuracies of 12–16 cm until about 1984. Then McDonald Observatory built a special purpose system (MLRS) just for ranging, and achieved roughly 3 cm accuracies mid-to-late 1980s. In the early 1990s a French LLR system at the Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur (OCA) started operation, with similar precision.[6]

The McDonald and OCA stations are collecting data that is about as good as possible, given the number of photons they collect back from the reflectors. Although minor improvements are certainly possible, getting significantly better data requires a larger telescope and a better site. This is the basic goal of the APOLLO collaboration.

The APOLLO laser has been operational since October 2005, and routinely accomplishes sub-millimeter level range accuracy between the Earth and the Moon.[7][8]

Science goals

The goal of APOLLO is to push LLR into the millimeter range precision, which then translates directly into an order-of-magnitude improvement in the determination of fundamental physics parameters. Specifically, assuming improvements of a factor of ten over prior measurements,[9][10] APOLLO will test:

Tests of the Equivalence Principles

The Weak Equivalence Principle says that all objects fall the same way in a gravity field, no matter what they are made of. The Earth and the Moon have very different compositions—for example, the Earth has a large iron core, but the Moon does not. Furthermore, both are in orbit around the Sun, meaning they are both falling towards the Sun at all times, even as they revolve around each other. If the Earth and the Moon were affected differently by the gravity of the Sun, this would directly affect the orbit of the Moon around the Earth. But as closely as scientists can measure, the orbit of the Moon is just as predicted from assuming that gravity acts the same on each — to within 1 part in 1013, the Earth and the Moon fall towards the Sun in exactly the same way, despite their different compositions. APOLLO will lead to even tighter limits.

What about the Strong Equivalence Principle? According to Einstein's General Relativity, the mass of any object consists of two parts—the mass of the atoms themselves, plus the mass of the energy that holds the object together. The question is whether the energy portion of mass behaves like the traditional part—does it contribute to measured gravity of the object? To the inertia? In General Relativity, the self energy affects both the gravity field and inertia, and does so equally. This is the Strong Equivalence Principle (SEP).

Other modern theories, such as string theory, quintessence, and various forms of quantum gravity, almost all predict a violation of the Strong Equivalence Principle at some level. Additionally, many puzzling experimental results, such as Galaxy rotation curves that imply dark matter or supernova observations that imply dark energy, could also potentially be explained by alternative theories of gravity (see, for example, MOND). Therefore experimentalists believe it is important to make the most precise measurements of gravity possible, looking for any possible anomalies or confirming Einstein's predictions.

Precise ranging to the Moon can test the SEP since the Earth and the Moon have a different fraction of their mass in the energy component. Precision measurements are needed since this component is very small—if mE is the self energy of the Earth — the energy needed to spread the atoms of the Earth out to infinity against the attraction of gravity — then the mass of the Earth is decreased by about me / c2 = 4.6×10 − 10 of the Earth’s total mass. The self energy of the Moon is smaller yet, about 2×10 − 11 of its mass. (The contribution for any object of laboratory size is negligible, about 10 − 27, so only measurements of planet-sized or bigger objects have any hope of seeing this effect.)[11]

If the Moon just revolved around the Earth, there would be no way to tell what fraction of the Moon's or the Earth's gravity was caused by each form of mass, since only the total can be measured. However, the orbit of the Moon is also strongly affected by the gravity of the sun—in essence, Earth and Moon are in freefall around the sun. If the energy portion of mass behaves differently than the conventional portion, then the Earth and the Moon will fall differently toward the Sun, and the orbit of the Moon around the Earth will be affected. For example, suppose the energy part of the mass does affect gravity, but does not affect inertia. Then:

From our perspective on Earth, this would appear as a displacement, or polarization, of the lunar orbit away from the sun with an amplitude of 13 meters. If the violation went the other way, with the self energy possessing inertial mass but not gravitational mass, the lunar orbit would appear to be polarized toward the sun by the same amplitude. The calculation of the amplitude is complicated,[12][13][14] but a crude estimate may be derived by multiplying the Earth’s orbital radius of 1.5×1011 m by the 4.6×10 − 10 contribution to the Earth’s mass from the self-energy to yield 75 meters.[6]

The signature of an EP violation is very simple, depending only on the distance of the Moon from the Sun. This repeats about every 29.5 days, somewhat longer than the time the Moon takes to go around the Earth once, which is 27.3 days. (This difference arises since the Earth moves along its orbit as the Moon goes around, so the Moon has to make a little more than one orbit to get back to the same position relative to the Sun.) This makes EP particularly easy to measure, since many confounding effects such as tides or weather will not repeat at 29.5 day intervals. Unfortunately, there is one effect—radiation pressure acting on the orbit of the Moon—that does repeat each 29.5 days. Fortunately, it is small, less than 4 mm, and fairly easy to model so it can be subtracted out.

Finally, even if the experiments show no effect, there is a tiny theoretical loophole. The measurements show the sum of the WEP and SEP violations. If the experiments show no effect, the most natural explanation is that neither WEP or SEP are violated. But it is conceptually possible that both are violated, and by equal and opposite amounts. This would be an incredible coincidence since WEP and SEP depend on very different and arbitrary properties—the exact composition of the Earth and the Moon, and their self-energies. But this unlikely case cannot be completely ruled out until either other solar system bodies are measured to similar precision, or laboratory experiments reduce the bounds on WEP violations alone.

Variations in the gravitational constant

Existing ranging experiments can measure the constancy of the Gravitational constant, G, to about one part in 1012 per year. The expansion rate of the universe is approximately one part in 1010 per year. So if G scaled with the size or expansion of the universe, existing experiments would already have seen this variation. This result can also be viewed as experimental verification of the theoretical result[15] that gravitationally bound system do not partake in the general expansion of the universe. APOLLO will place much tighter bounds on any such variations.

Other tests

At this level of accuracy, General Relativity is needed to predict the orbit of the Moon. Current tests measure geodetic precession to a 0.35% level of precision, gravitomagnetism at the 0.1% level, and checks whether gravity behaves as 1 / r2 as expected. APOLLO will improve on all these measurements.

Principles of operation

Graph of returned photons

APOLLO is based on measuring the time-of-flight of a short-pulse laser reflected from a distant target—in this case the retroreflector arrays on the Moon. Each burst of light lasts 100 picoseconds (ps).[16] One millimeter in range corresponds to only 6.7 ps of round-trip travel time. However, the retroreflectors on the Moon introduce more than one mm of error themselves. They are not usually at an exact right angle to the incoming beam, so the different corner cubes of the retroreflectors are at different distances from the transmitter. This is because the Moon, although it keeps one face to the Earth, does not do so exactly—it wobbles from side to side and up and down, by as much as 10° in magnitude. (There is a nice animated GIF of this on the libration page.) These librations occur since the Moon rotates at constant speed, but has an elliptical and inclined orbit. This effect may seem small, but it is not only measurable, it forms the largest unknown in finding the range, since there is no way to tell which corner cube reflected each photon. The biggest array, the 0.6 m2 Apollo 15 reflector, can have a corner-to-corner range spread of ≈ 1.2 tan(10°) m, or 210 mm, or about 1.4 ns of round-trip time. The root-mean-square (RMS) range spread is then about 400 ps. To determine the distance to the reflector to 1 mm precision, or 7 ps, by averaging, the measurement needs at least (400/7)2 ≈ 3000 photons. This explains why a much larger system is needed to improve the existing measurements—the current 2 cm RMS range precision requires only about 10 photons, even at the worst-case orientation of the retroreflector array.

APOLLO attacks this problem by using both a bigger telescope and better astronomical seeing. Both are considerably improved over existing systems. Compared to McDonald Observatory ranging station, the Apache Point telescope has a factor of 20 greater light-collecting area. There is also a big gain from better seeing—the APO site and telescope combined can often achieve one arcsecond seeing, compared to the ∼ 5 arcseconds typical for MLRS. The better seeing helps two ways—it both increases the laser beam intensity on the Moon and reduces the lunar background, since a smaller receiver field-of-view may be used, gathering light from a smaller spot on the Moon. Both effects scale as the inverse square of the seeing, so that the signal-to-noise ratio of the lunar return is inversely proportional to the fourth power of the seeing. APOLLO should therefore gain about 20 (from the bigger telescope) × 25 (for better seeing) = 500 × in return signal strength over MLRS, and additional factor of 25 in signal-to-noise (from fewer stray photons interfering with the desired ones). Likewise APOLLO should get a signal about 50 times stronger than the OCA LLR facility, which has a 1.5 m telescope and seeing of about 3 arcsec.

The increased optical gain brings some problems due to the possibility of getting more than one returned photon per pulse. The most novel component of the APOLLO system is the integrated array of Single-Photon Avalanche Diodes (SPADs) used the detector. This technology is needed to deal with multiple photon returns within each pulse. Most single photon detectors can only record the time of the first photon if another arrives very soon thereafter (This effect is called dead time.). This means that if more than one photon comes back in a single pulse, a conventional single-photon detector would record the arrival time of only the first photon. However, the important quantity is the centroid of the time of all returned photons (assuming the pulse and reflectors are symmetrical), so any system that can return multiple photons per pulse must record the arrival times of each photon. In APOLLO, the incoming photons are spread over an array of independent detectors, which reduces the chance that two or more photons hit any one of the detectors.[6]

Modeling station locations

Any laser ranging station, APOLLO included, measures the transit time, and hence the distance, from the telescope to the reflector(s). But for lunar ranging science, what is really wanted is the distance between the center of mass of the Earth and the center of mass of the Moon. To do this, the positions of the telescope, and the reflectors, must be known to comparable precision (a few mm). Since both the telescope and the reflectors are stationary structures, it might seem they could be precisely measured, and then their position would be known thereafter. This assumption is not too bad for the Moon, which is a quiet environment. But for the Earth, the stations move quite a bit on this scale:

  • The Earth's polar axis moves and the Earth's rotation is irregular. The polar axis moves due to various causes, some predictable (the Moon exerts a torque on Earth's tidal bulge) and some variable (rocks are rebounding from the last ice age, weather). Weather also affects the Earth's rotation, by moving large masses of water around. These effects, important to many other science projects as well, even have their own agency to keep track of them—the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service.
  • The stations move due to tides. The Moon, since it is tidally locked to the Earth, has relatively small and repeatable tides of about 10 cm. The solid Earth has larger tides, oscillating about 35 cm peak-to-peak, every 12 hours.
  • The Earth's crust changes in response to long term fluctuations such as post-glacial rebound and loading caused by sediment transport.[17]
  • The Earth's short-term weather can also affect the location of the telescope, primarily vertically. Various weather effects can load local regions of the Earth's crust, depressing the crust by a few millimeters. These effects come from the atmosphere (high pressure systems press on the Earth's surface), and the ocean (water piles up on the coast depressing the crust). Ground water fluctuations, caused by rain, can also affect the telescope location.
  • The pressure of sunlight pushes the Moon's orbit slightly off center. This is a small effect, about 3.65 mm,[18] but it is particularly important since it mimics the effect of a EP violation.
  • Even continental drift must be compensated for.

In addition, the Earth's atmosphere causes an additional delay, since the speed of light is slightly slower through the atmosphere. This amounts to about 1.6 meters when looking straight up at Apache Point. This delay is also affected by weather, primarily atmospheric pressure, which determines just how much air there is above the site.

Since many of these effects are weather-related, and also affect the more common satellite laser ranging, ranging stations traditionally include weather stations, measuring local temperature, pressure, and relative humidity. APOLLO will measure all these, plus measure local gravity very precisely, using a precision gravimeter.[19] This instrument is capable of sensing vertical displacements as small as 0.1 mm, by measuring the change in gravity as the observatory moves closer to or further from the Earth's center.

Using all these measurements, scientists try to model and predict the exact location of the telescope, and the delays through the atmosphere, so they can compensate for them. The tides are fairly predictable, and the Earth's rotation is measured by the IERS and can be accounted for. Atmospheric delay is fairly well understood, and is dominated by the pressure measurement alone. Early models had uncertainties in the 5–10 mm range for reasonable elevation angles,[20] though more recent efforts have produced a model claiming 3 mm accuracy down to 10 degrees above the horizon, and sub-millimeter performance above 20–30° elevation.[21] The weather is perhaps the biggest error source. Atmospheric loading is estimated from the barometric pressure at the telescope and the average pressure within a 1000 km radius. Ocean loading has been handled strictly by empirical models, and ground water has been largely ignored. APOLLO will probably require improvements in all these models to reach the full accuracy of the measurements.


APOLLO has been up and working to various degrees since October 2005, with science-quality data beginning April 2006. The current (as of mid 2011) status is:[22]

  • All 5 reflectors (three Apollo and two Lunokhod) ranged routinely.
  • As many as 12 photons in a single pulse (limited by detector - might have been more)
  • Sustained rate of about 3 photons per pulse over several minutes. This about 65 times more photons detected than previous efforts.
  • As many as 50,000 return photons detected in a single lunation (during 5 hours total operation)

As of mid 2011, the range precision (per session) appears to be about 1.8-3.3mm per reflector,[22] while the orbit of the Moon is being determined to roughly the 15mm level.[22] The gap between the measurements and the theory could be due to systematic errors in the ranging, insufficient modeling of various conventional effects that become important at this level, or limitations of our theory of gravity. More observations and better modeling will help decide between these alternatives, though insufficient modeling is the primary suspect, since this is known to be both complex and difficult.

The APOLLO collaboration has discovered that the optical efficiency of the lunar reflectors decreases at full moon. This effect was not present in measurements from the early 1970s, was visible but not strong in the 1980s, and is now quite significant (about 10x). The cause is unclear but one possibility is that dust on the arrays leads to temperature gradients, distorting the returned beam.[23] Measurements during the total lunar eclipse of December 2010 have confirmed thermal effects as the cause.[22]

In April 2010, the APOLLO team announced that with the aid of photos from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, they had found the long-lost Lunokhod 1 rover and had received returns from the laser retroreflector.[24] By the fall of 2010, the location of the rover had been determined to about a centimeter. The location near the limb of the moon, combined with the ability to range the rover even when it is in sunlight, promises to be particularly useful for determining aspects of the Earth-Moon system.[25]

The collaboration

APOLLO is collaboration between: University of California, San Diego (Tom Murphy (PI), Eric Michelsen), University of Washington (Eric Adelberger, Erik Swanson), Harvard (Chris Stubbs, James Battat), Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Jim Williams, Slava Turyshev, Dale Boggs), Lincoln Laboratory, (Brian Aull, Bob Reich), Northwest Analysis (Ken Nordtvedt), Apache Point Observatory (Bruce Gillespie, Russet McMillan), and Humboldt State (C. D. Hoyle).


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  2. ^ T. W. Murphy, Jr., E. G. Adelberger, J. B. R. Battat, L. N. Carey, C. D. Hoyle, P. LeBlanc, E. L. Michelsen, K. Nordtvedt, A. E. Orin, J. D. Strasburg, C. W. Stubbs, H. E. Swanson, and E. Williams (2008). "APOLLO: the Apache Point Observatory Lunar Laser-ranging Operation: Instrument Description and First Detections". Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 120 (863): 20. arXiv:0710.0890. Bibcode 2008PASP..120...20M. doi:10.1086/526428. 
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  5. ^ Dickey, J. O., Bender, P. L., Faller, J.E., Newhall, X. X., Ricklefs, R. L., Ries, J. G., Shelus, P. J., Veillet, C., Whipple, A. L., Wiant, J. R., Williams, J. G., and Yoder, C. F. (1994). "Lunar Laser Ranging: A Continuing Legacy of the Apollo Program". Science 265 (5171): 482–90. Bibcode 1994Sci...265..482D. doi:10.1126/science.265.5171.482. PMID 17781305. 
  6. ^ a b c T. W. Murphy, Jr., J. D. Strasburg, C. W. Stubbs, E. G. Adelberger, J. Angle, K. Nordtvedt, J. G. Williams, J. O. Dickey, B. Gillespie. "The Apache Point Observatory Lunar LASER-Ranging Operation (APOLLO)" (PDF). http://physics.ucsd.edu/~tmurphy/apollo/doc/matera.pdf. 
  7. ^ APOLLO Collaboration. "APOLLO's Run Highlights". http://physics.ucsd.edu/~tmurphy/apollo/highlights.html. 
  8. ^ APOLLO Collaboration. "APOLLO Run Summary". http://physics.ucsd.edu/~tmurphy/apollo/lunations.html. . Run summaries by lunar month.
  9. ^ Williams, J. G., Newhall, X. X., and Dickey, J. O. (1996). "Relativity parameters determined from lunar laser ranging". Physical Review D 53 (12): 6730. Bibcode 1996PhRvD..53.6730W. doi:10.1103/PhysRevD.53.6730. 
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  11. ^ Clifford M. Will. "The Confrontation between General Relativity and Experiment". Max Planck Society. http://relativity.livingreviews.org/open?pubNo=lrr-2006-3&page=articlesu11.html. , section 3.6.
  12. ^ Nordtvedt, K. (1995). "The Relativistic Orbit Observables in Lunar Laser Ranging". Icarus 114: 51. Bibcode 1995Icar..114...51N. doi:10.1006/icar.1995.1042. 
  13. ^ Damour, T., and Vokrouhlický, D. (1996). "Equivalence Principle and the Moon". Physical Review D 53 (8): 4177. arXiv:gr-qc/9507016. Bibcode 1996PhRvD..53.4177D. doi:10.1103/PhysRevD.53.4177. 
  14. ^ Müller, J., and Nordtvedt, K. (1998). "Lunar laser ranging and the equivalence principle signal". Physical Review D 58 (200): 062001. Bibcode 1998PhRvD..58f2001M. doi:10.1103/PhysRevD.58.062001. 
  15. ^ Noerdlinger, P. D.; Petrosian, V. (1971). "The Effect of Cosmological Expansion on Self-Gravitating Ensembles of Particles". Astrophysical Journal 168: 1. Bibcode 1971ApJ...168....1N. doi:10.1086/151054. 
  16. ^ Apache Point webpage
  17. ^ JPL/NASA. "NASA says glacial sediments adding to Louisiana coast's sinking". Spaceflight Now. http://www.spaceflightnow.com/news/n0802/02louisiana/. 
  18. ^ David Vokrouhlický (1997). "A Note on the Solar Radiation Perturbations of Lunar Motion". Icarus 126 (2): 293–300. Bibcode 1997Icar..126..293V. doi:10.1006/icar.1996.5652. 
  19. ^ "Superconducting Gravity Meters". GWR Instruments. http://catalog.gwrinstruments.com/item/gravity-meters/gwr-observatory-superconducting-gravimeter/item-1010. 
  20. ^ Marini, J. W., & Murray, C. W., Jr. (1973). "Correction of Laser Range Tracking Data for Atmospheric Refraction at Elevation Angles Above 10 Degrees" (PDF). NASA Technical Report X-591-73-351. http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19740007037_1974007037.pdf. 
  21. ^ Pavlis, E. C., & Mendes, V. B. (2000). "Improved Mapping Functions for Atmospheric Refraction Corrections for LR: Preliminary Validation Results". 12th International Workshop on Laser Ranging, Matera, Italy. 
  22. ^ a b c d Thomas Murphy (19 May 2011). "Apollo Status Update". http://cddis.gsfc.nasa.gov/lw17/docs/presentations/session14/02a-Murphy_LLR.pdf. 
  23. ^ T.W. Murphy Jr.a, E.G. Adelberger, J.B.R. Battat, C.D. Hoyle, R.J. McMillan, E.L. Michelsen, R.L. Samad, C.W. Stubbs and H.E. Swanson (2010). "Long-term degradation of optical devices on the Moon". Icarus 208: 31. arXiv:1003.0713. Bibcode 2010Icar..208...31M. doi:10.1016/j.icarus.2010.02.015. 
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