NASA moon rock samples—The men who walked on the moon did not return empty handed from their lunar expeditions. Half a century after their return to Earth, what did the samples of the Apollo program become and what purpose did they serve?
Although they are lunar, they are among the most valuable materials on Earth. Apollo astronauts brought back samples of rocks for analysis. Half a century later, these pieces of Moon still have secrets to reveal. Thanks to 21st century technologies, scientists are continuing to learn more about Earth’s “little sister” and its shared history with our planet. NASA has recently announced its intention to make available samples of Apollo XI that were never studied.
“It’s sort of a coincidence that we’re opening them in the year of the anniversary,” explained NASA’s Apollo sample curator Ryan Zeigler. “But certainly the anniversary increased the awareness and the fact that we’re going back to the moon.”
What does moon rock look like?
If we rely solely on appearance, a lunar rock is not very different from terrestrial rock. At first glance, it is even almost impossible to distinguish these extraterrestrial stones from those we know on Earth. Some are basaltic in nature and look like grayish pebbles of little value. They were taken from the lunar seas, the dark areas we see on the surface of our satellite. The lunar surface is also composed of another type of rock which is distinguished from the others by its white color. These pebbles, calcic in nature, form the “primordial crust” of the Moon. They are much older and date from the time when the Moon was formed.
What happened to the rocks?
Of the 382 kg of lunar rocks brought back by Apollo, 23 were destroyed as part of scientific work. And 61 were altered because they were manipulated to be analyzed. Today, 198 kg of lunar rocks remain, nearly 85% of the loot. These samples were taken from a relatively small perimeter that represents less than 2% of the Moon’s surface. They are totally intact. Most are housed in a secure safe at the NASA Lunar Sample Laboratory at Johnson Space Center in Houston. They are therefore in the same conditions as half a century ago.
NASA had anticipated that these samples could be used in the following decades. Without this secrecy, the results of the post facto studies would have been skewed. Laboratories today use technologies that did not exist at the time. In the same way, future generations will be able to study them.
“We can do more with a milligram than we could do with a gram back then. So it was really good planning on their part to wait,” Ryan Zeigler said.
How did these samples transform our knowledge of the Moon?
All the theories of moon formation had to be reconsidered after the return of the Apollo samples. Scientists have been able to understand how the Earth’s natural satellite was born, almost at the same time as the Earth 4.4 billion years ago, as a result of a huge impact between the young Earth and a planetoid probably the size of Mars called Theia. Before Apollo, however, this theory was considered the most far-fetched.
We continue today to make discoveries from these samples. In 2010, for example, an American research team found water in the form of hydrogen inside an ore. This discovery challenged our idea of the origin of water on the Moon and Earth. In addition, this water could be very useful, especially if we build a lunar base inhabited by scientists. If the moon becomes a relay station, it would also power rocket engines that will explore the solar system.
A piece of the Earth found on the Moon
The study of these lunar rocks has also revealed the presence of strategic resources on the surface of the Moon. Water, therefore, but especially helium-3 and even rare earths.
The question of lunar resources, especially helium-3, an extremely rare element on earth but which would be present in abundance on the selene soil, plays a big role in the revival of interest for lunar exploration. This isotope would allow, in a hypothetical future goal, to feed fusion reactors to create so-called clean energy. Scientists also talk about the presence of precious metals, the famous rare earths. The presence of these resources is one of the reasons why the Chinese are interested in the moon.
In November 2018, three samples taken during a Soviet non-inhabited mission in 1970 were acquired at an auction for $ 855,000. The lunar rocks of the Apollo program are considered though a national treasure in the United States. This loot belongs to the US state. And so it is impossible to buy.
A few years ago, Ben Mezrich, an internship student at NASA, stole samples from a laboratory vault. He tried to sell them and ended up in jail. On the other hand, it is possible to buy fragments of lunar meteorites. We even find them on eBay.