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.”


NASA finds Indian moon lander with help of amateur space enthusiast

Updated 03 December 2019

NASA finds Indian moon lander with help of amateur space enthusiast

  • NASA released an image taken by its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that showed the site of the spacecraft’s impact
  • A version of the picture was marked up to show the associated debris field

WASHINGTON: India’s Vikram lunar lander, which crashed on its final approach to the Moon’s surface in September, has been found thanks in part to the sleuthing efforts of an amateur space enthusiast.
NASA made the announcement on Monday, releasing an image taken by its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) that showed the site of the spacecraft’s impact (September 7 in India and September 6 in the US).
A version of the picture was marked up to show the associated debris field, with parts scattered over almost two dozen locations spanning several kilometers.
In a statement, NASA said it released a mosaic image of the site on September 26 (but taken on September 17), inviting the public to compare it with images of the same area before the crash to find signs of the lander.
The first person to come up with a positive identification was Shanmuga “Shan” Subramanian, a 33-year-old IT professional from Chennai, who said that NASA’s inability to find the lander on its own had sparked his interest.
“I had side-by-side comparison of those two images on two of my laptops ... on one side there was the old image, and another side there was the new image released by NASA,” he said, adding he was helped by fellow Twitter and Reddit users.
“It was quite hard, but (I) spent some effort,” said the self-professed space nerd, finally announcing his discovery on Twitter on October 3.
NASA then performed additional searches in the area and officially announced the finding almost two months later.
“NASA has to be 100% sure before they can go public, and that’s the reason they waited to confirm it, and even I would have done the same,” said Subramanian.
Blasting off in July, emerging Asian giant India had hoped with its Chandrayaan-2 (“Moon Vehicle 2“) mission to become just the fourth country after the United States, Russia and regional rival China to make a successful Moon landing, and the first on the lunar south pole.
The main spacecraft, which remains in orbit around the Moon, dropped the unmanned lander Vikram for a descent that would take five days, but the probe went silent just 2.1 kilometers above the surface.
Days after the failed landing, the Indian Space Research Organization said it had located the lander, but hadn’t been able to establish communication.