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

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.”


Virgin Galactic unveils supersonic jet design

Updated 05 August 2020

Virgin Galactic unveils supersonic jet design

  • The aircraft is capable of carrying 19 passengers while traveling at three times the speed of sound at altitudes of up to 60,000 feet

LONDON: Virgin Galactic this week unveiled the design of its supersonic jet, which it promises will “open up a new frontier in high-speed travel.”

The aircraft, capable of carrying 19 passengers while traveling at three times the speed of sound at altitudes of up to 60,000 feet, will be designed and developed in partnership with Rolls-Royce.

“We are excited to complete the Mission Concept Review and unveil this initial design concept of a high-speed aircraft, which we envision as blending safe and reliable commercial travel with an unrivaled customer experience,” said George Whitesides, chief space officer at Virgin Galactic.

“We are pleased to collaborate with the innovative team at Rolls-Royce as we strive to develop sustainable, cutting-edge propulsion systems for the aircraft, and we are pleased to be working with the FAA to ensure our designs can make a practical impact from the start.

“We have made great progress so far, and we look forward to opening up a new frontier in high-speed travel,” he added.

Richard Branson, the company’s founder, could travel into space as the first passenger as early as next year, Virgin Galactic said in a statement.

The spaceflight venture has repeatedly pushed back the date it will take the first tourists outside Earth’s atmosphere and said 600 people have already paid $250,000 to reserve a seat.

Virgin Galactic said on Monday it “expects to advance to the next phase of its test flight program” in the autumn, with two manned flights.

“Assuming both flights demonstrate the expected results, Virgin Galactic anticipates Sir Richard Branson’s flight to occur in the first quarter of 2021,” the company said.

The groundbreaking flight by Branson would pave the way for future commercial space journeys, Virgin Galactic said.