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.”


Mystery Russian projectile raises fears of arms race in space

Updated 25 July 2020

Mystery Russian projectile raises fears of arms race in space

WASHINGTON: The United States this week accused Russia of having tested an anti-satellite weapon in space, a charge Moscow has denied, saying the device was a “special instrument” for inspecting orbiting Russian equipment.
Whatever it was, the incident marks for Washington a rare military escalation in space.
The ability of one satellite to attack another was until now merely theoretical.
The United States, Russia, China and, since 2019, India, have been able to target satellites with Earth-launched projectiles, but these explosions create millions of pieces of debris in orbit, prompting the world powers to refrain from such tests.
This week’s incident may be seen as a message to Washington, which under President Donald Trump is building up a new “Space Force” wing of its military.
Space Force’s commander, General Jay Raymond, on Friday reiterated that “space is a warfighting domain just like air, land and sea.”
In November 2019, Russia launched a satellite named Cosmos 2542. A week later, that satellite surprised observers when it released a sub-satellite, Cosmos 2543, capable of maneuvering in orbit to observe, inspect or spy on other satellites.
This sub-satellite moved close to a US spy satellite, USA-245, and to another Russian satellite. A game of cat and mouse began in orbit, easily observable from Earth by astronomers and the US military, which publicly expressed its concern.
On July 15 at around 0750 GMT, Cosmos 2543 (the sub-satellite with a surface area of less than a square meter, according to the US military), released an object at a high relative speed, around 200 meters per second, said astronomer Jonathan McDowell.
Dubbed “Object E” by the United States, it is still in orbit and appears not to have hit anything. Its size, shape and purpose remain a mystery, but that does nothing to diminish the threat it may pose.
In orbit, satellites speed through the void at tens of thousands of miles per hour. The smallest contact with another object risks smashing a hole in its solar panels or damaging or even destroying it, depending on the size of whatever it may hit.
In space, the difference between a satellite and a weapon is therefore theoretical: whatever its function, “Object E” is a de facto “projectile” and therefore a “weapon,” the US says.
It is the equivalent of a “bullet” in space, said Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation.
“There’s no such thing as a fender bender up there.”
Moscow has implicitly admitted as much by accusing Washington and London of having satellite inspection or repair programs that can be used as “counter-satellite weapons.”
The United States has maneuverable military satellites in orbit which can launch smaller satellites.
But it’s unclear if the US has the capability to launch high-speed projectiles as the Russians have just done, said Brian Weeden, a space security expert at the Secure World Foundation in Washington.
“But they probably could if they wanted to,” he told AFP.
“Russia may be trying to send a strategic message about the vulnerability of US systems,” Weeden said. Spy satellites are enormous, extremely costly and rare.
Russia is far less dependent upon satellites than the United States, and its satellites are much less expensive, he said.
That was echoed by the Space Force commander on Friday, who noted that ever since the Gulf War in the early 1990s, the entire US military, from war planes to infantry, depend on space-based technology for navigation, communications and intelligence.
“There’s nothing we do... that doesn’t have space enabled in it every step of the way,” the general said.
The United States and Russia will have the chance to hold direct talks next week in Vienna, during their first meeting on space security since 2013.