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.”


Are robots ever going to replace doctors? Experts say ‘no’

Updated 23 January 2020

Are robots ever going to replace doctors? Experts say ‘no’

  • The panel addressed the role of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics in the medical field

DUBAI: The growing use of technology in the healthcare industry will continue to expand but should not take over from the primary care provided  by doctors and nurses, a panel of health experts said in a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum on Thursday.

The panel addressed the role of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics in the medical field, agreeing that all care should remain focused on the needs of the patient, adding that “robots can’t replace doctors.”

But Leif Johansson, chairman of the board at pharmaceutical company, AstraZeneca AB, said the technology would be especially essential to “screening programs and extending access to care.”

“The only way to support primary care centers with low-skilled people, for screening purposes, will be with AI, robotics,” he explained, citing India as an example of a country with a shortage of qualified doctors who can address the needs of a massive population.

While technology presents potential benefits to the industry, Lisa Sanders, Associate Professor at the Yale Medical School, said she was concerned current technology faced a “barrier in data input.”

“How is AI or the robot going to get the data they need from patients?” Sanders, the doctor who was the inspiration behind the hit US TV show “House,” said, questioning how technology “would be able to assess patients when they’re complex and confused.”

Jodi Halpern, a professor of bioethics, shared the same sentiment, and highlighted what she described as three important situations when “a relationship with an actual human doctor makes a difference for effective healthcare.”

One was taking medical history from patients, Halpern said, explaining most patients would only disclose personal information when there’s empathy from doctors.

“If we don't get a good history, we won't get a good treatment," she added.

Another was ensuring patients take medication, and lastly was helping people deal with bad news.

Sanders, a physician herself, said “it’s not the thinking” that doctors need help from technology for, but "other things like dealing with poorly conceived systems of medical records."