Apollo moon rocks help transform understanding of the universe

Moon rocks are on display at the Johnson Space Center in Houston on May 23, 2019. (AFP / Chris Lefkow)
Updated 16 June 2019
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Apollo moon rocks help transform understanding of the universe

  • Apollo astronauts collected 842 pounds (382 kilograms) of rocks and soil during their six missions to the Moon
  • NASA planetary scientist says the astronauts only directly explored an area roughly the size of a large shopping mall

HOUSTON, Texas: Moon rocks look rather nondescript — they are often gray in color — but for NASA planetary scientist Samuel Lawrence, they are the “most precious materials on Earth.”
What is certain is that the lunar samples first gathered by Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong nearly 50 years ago have helped transform our understanding of the cosmos.
Apollo astronauts collected 842 pounds (382 kilograms) of rocks and soil during their six missions to the Moon between 1969 and 1972 and brought it all back to Earth.
“The Moon is the Rosetta Stone of the solar system,” Lawrence, who works at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in an interview with AFP. “It’s the cornerstone of planetary science.”
“People don’t fully appreciate just how important studying the Apollo samples was for understanding the solar system and the universe around us,” he said.
“Many of the discoveries that we’ve made in planetary science, not just on the Moon, but on Mercury, on Mars, on some of the asteroids, directly relate to some of the results that we obtained during the Apollo missions.”
Studying Apollo rocks has given scientists an understanding of how the Moon was created, roughly at the same time as Earth some 4.3 to 4.4 billion years ago.
Debris spent the next several hundred million years coalescing in Earth orbit into the Moon we have today, explained Lawrence.
“We learned that the interior structure of the Moon is like the Earth,” he said. “It has a crust, it has a mantle and it has a core.”
And while life evolved on Earth, “the Moon is lifeless,” he said.

Tourist attraction
Several moon rocks are on display at the Johnson Space Center, where they attract hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
President Richard Nixon also gave moon rocks from Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 to all of the nations of the world — 135, at the time — as a token of US goodwill.
But most of the moon rocks are kept at NASA’s Lunar Sample Laboratory in Houston. Another cache of samples is stored at White Sands, New Mexico.
“They’re kept in sealed sample containers in a secure vault that’s capable of surviving hurricanes and many other natural disasters,” Lawrence said.
Lunar samples are being handed out this year to scientists around the country for further study to mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission.
“We’re very careful,” Lawrence said. “These are the most precious materials on Earth and they go through a rigorous process when scientists request a sample.”
And while the samples have been in NASA hands for five decades, new discoveries are still being made.
“The rocks haven’t changed but our ability to analyze them has in terms of laboratory equipment,” Lawrence said.
Among the recent discoveries? Evidence of water.
“We’re not talking about lots of water,” Lawrence said. “But it’s there and we didn’t really appreciate it during the Apollo era.”
Lawrence said he is excited about the possibility of sending astronauts back to the Moon, a goal President Donald Trump has set for 2024.
“The (Apollo) astronauts only directly explored an area that’s roughly the size of a large suburban shopping mall,” Lawrence said. “There’s a lot of places on the Moon that we haven’t yet explored.”
“Six missions to the Moon transformed our understanding of the universe,” he said. “Imagine what happens when we’re going there for weeks or months at a time. It’s going to be pretty spectacular.”


‘Stronger than ever’: India set for fresh Moon launch attempt

Updated 21 July 2019
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‘Stronger than ever’: India set for fresh Moon launch attempt

  • The South Asian nation is bidding to become just the fourth nation to land a spacecraft on the Moon
  • The first launch attempt was scrubbed just under an hour before the scheduled lift-off because of what authorities described as a “technical snag”

SRIHARIKOTA, India: India will make a second attempt Monday to send a landmark spacecraft to the Moon after an apparent fuel leak forced last week’s launch to be aborted.
The South Asian nation is bidding to become just the fourth nation — after Russia, the United States and China — to land a spacecraft on the Moon.
The mission comes 50 years after Neil Armstrong became the first person to step foot on the moon, an occasion celebrated by space enthusiasts globally on Saturday
The fresh launch attempt for Chandrayaan-2 — Moon Chariot 2 in some Indian languages including Sanskrit and Hindi — has been scheduled for 2:43 p.m. (0913 GMT) on Monday, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) said.
“Chandrayaan 2 is ready to take a billion dreams to the Moon — now stronger than ever before!” it said on Thursday.
The first launch attempt was scrubbed just under an hour before the scheduled lift-off because of what authorities described as a “technical snag.” Local media, citing ISRO officials, said that issue was a fuel leak.
The agency tweeted Saturday that a rehearsal for the launch was completed successfully.
Chandrayaan-2 will be launched atop a Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) MkIII, India’s most powerful rocket.
Experts said setbacks were to be expected in such missions given their complexity, and that it was more prudent to delay the launch instead of taking risks that may jeopardize the project.
“In such an ambitious and prestigious mission like Chandrayaan, one cannot take a chance even if a small flaw is detected,” Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, head of space policy at the New Delhi think tank the Observer Research Foundation, told AFP.
Former NASA scientist Kumar Krishen said India’s space agency should be praised for taking on ambitious projects like Chandrayaan-2.
“We should keep in mind that space exploration is risky as many systems have failed in the past and many lives lost,” he told AFP.
Aside from propelling India into rarefied company among spacefaring nations, Chandrayaan-2 also stands out because of its low cost.
About $140 million has been spent on preparations for the mission, a much smaller price tag compared with similar missions by other countries — whose costs often run into billions of dollars.
Chandrayaan-2, and India’s space program as a whole, are a source of national pride in India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has outlined an ambitious plan to launch a crewed space mission by 2022, and India hopes to seek out commercial satellite and orbiting deals.
The new mission comes almost 11 years after the launch of India’s first lunar mission — Chandrayaan-1 — which orbited the Moon and searched for water.
The rocket carrying Chandrayaan-2 will launch from the Satish Dhawan Space Center at Sriharikota, an island off the coast of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.
The spacecraft will carry an orbiter, lander and a rover, which has been almost entirely designed and made in India.
The orbiter is planned to circle the Moon for about one year, imaging the surface and studying the atmosphere.
The lander, named Vikram, will head to the surface near the lunar South Pole carrying the rover. Once it touches down, the rover will carry out experiments while being controlled remotely by ISRO scientists.
It is expected to work for one lunar day, the equivalent of 14 Earth days, and will look for signs of water and “a fossil record of the early solar system.”