Science & Technology

Untouched for Decades, These Lunar Samples Will Finally Reveal Their Secrets

Fifty years after humans first landed on the moon, our closest large neighbor still holds a bunch of mysteries. One thing that scientists really want to learn about is volcanism – a process that is common to the moon, Earth, and especially Venus and Mars. One lucky scientist recently got access to pristine moon samples carried back by Apollo astronauts, which she'll examine for evidence of ancient fire fountains. Here's what we hope to learn.

Why Do We Care About Volcanoes?

We know there were volcanoes on the moon long ago. Yes, it looks like a stable and dusty place right now, but in its distant past, it was a more volatile place to visit. If you look at the moon with even the naked eye, you can see a lot of dark areas. That's hardened lava.

Those volcanoes erupted in the ancient past, billions of years ago, but more recently, scientists have tracked down several dozen lunar sites that are much younger — like 100 million years old. That's a long time in human terms (after all, dinosaurs roamed the Earth back then), but in the solar system's 4.5 billion years, it's super young.

So why study volcanoes on the moon? It helps us better understand how rocky planets in general form — including the Earth. This untouched moon material will let scientists examine the particular mix of elements deep within the lunar interior, for example. Plus, better volcano science helps us improve our predictions for Earth-bound eruptions and keep people safe. And besides, volcanoes, fire fountains, and other lava products are super interesting phenomena in themselves. They show that a planet is active, which is one requirement for hosting life. That's why scientists will be looking for volcanic activity on Mars soon, using the NASA InSight lander.

Related Video: Check Out This Lava Fountain in Hawaii

Glass Beads

The new research studies a sample of pristine volcanic glass beads from materials collected during Apollo 15, 16, and 17, when the astronauts roamed the lunar highlands using rovers and more advanced equipment than the missions beforehand. NASA has kept this material untouched and safely put away ever since the last mission ended in 1972. This new Planetary Science Institute-led study is one of several that NASA selected to examine the research.

The lead investigator, M. Darby Dyar, will look at the glass beads to better understand the hydrogen and oxygen gradients inside of them. "The beads are formed by rapid cooling of droplets from explosive lunar fire fountains, like those seen in Hawaii," she said in a statement. "We will map changes from core to rim that reveal hydrogen and oxygen pressures in the lunar interior and before, during, and after eruption."

What's neater is after studying these samples with a particle accelerator and a spectrometer, the team will compare their work with other lunar samples that have been exposed to air since the 1970s. That's to see how moon regolith (or soil) changes with exposure to Earth's atmosphere.

And luckily, some of the Apollo astronauts may still be alive to see the results. Whereas Neil Armstrong of Apollo 11 died of natural causes in 2012, a handful of other moonwalkers still survive — including his crewmate, Buzz Aldrin.

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Real moon rocks are hard to come by, but you can get the next best thing in this Moon Rock Kit. It comes with six hand samples of rocks and minerals similar to those you'd find on the moon. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Elizabeth Howell March 21, 2019

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