Even a quick glance into the night sky should inspire wonder about how humans found a foothold to the universe by stepping on the moon for the first time.
While space exploration has proceeded in fits and starts since then, the discoveries of Apollo 11 continue to present a greater understanding of the moon and Earth. As the 50th anniversary of the first moon exploration nears, scientists continue unlocking clues about our place in the universe by further studying the lunar samples collected by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and the astronauts of five subsequent moon missions.
“I think people in general think, ‘We’ve had the Apollo samples for a long time, so why are we still studying them?'” Ryan Zeigler, Apollo sample curator and manager of NASA’s Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office, recently told Space.com. “There’s real, new work that’s being done on them that’s not just repeating what was done decades ago.”
Moon Discoveries Keep Providing Clues
It is lunar legend that on an otherwise by-the-book walk around the moon, the commander of Apollo 11 went a bit off script. After placing about 20 moon rocks into a collection box, Armstrong couldn’t miss his ride; the lunar module that taxied him and Aldrin between the main spacecraft and the moon would soon leave. But believing his box didn’t have enough samples, he decided to gather more soil, 5.9 kilos (13 pounds) worth.
Armstrong and the astronauts of other Apollo missions didn’t realize it at the time, but some moon rocks wouldn’t be studied until 2019. That’s because NASA knew that the technology didn’t exist during the Apollo program to properly study samples in a way that future scientific tools could. So, despite some remarkable research on lunar materials over the past 50 years, some of the 842 pounds of rock collected from the six moon missions have remained sealed, awaiting analysis.
Technology has indeed taken a giant leap since Armstrong jumped around on the moon. For one, NASA has a new X-ray CT scanner that identifies structures within objects, allowing scientists to see precisely where they should cut rocks to avoid destroying them. That should help scientists when they soon examine three samples for the first time: two vacuum-sealed cores and a long-frozen rock. Those studies can be performed just once — at the moment the samples are opened — so the scanner should provide guidance that wasn’t available until now.
The results from the next experiment might prove as surprising as those from a 2014 study of lunar basaltic glasses brought back by the Apollo 15 and Apollo 17 missions. That research showed that traces of water in the recovered moon rocks might share a common source with water on Earth.
Apollo Findings Provided Answers
Despite relative technological limitations, NASA nonetheless studied many of the lunar samples in earnest as soon as the Apollo missions returned home. In fact, just six months after the moon exploration by Apollo 11, so many observations had already been made about the soil of Earth’s satellite that Science published a special issue four times the size of a regular edition to cover all of the findings.
The importance of what the moon’s materials have revealed can’t be overstated. Prior to Apollo 11, no one could speak with certainty about the moon’s provenance. Was it hot or cold? Could it support life?
Now we know it is a terrestrial planet with interior zoning similar to Earth and that it was formed from rocky material that took shape through meteorite crashes, volcanic eruptions and widescale melting. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum neatly encapsulates those findings and many others, including that the moon has no life forms, that it has a radiation history that helps understand climate change on Earth, and that lunar samples offer time scales for the evolution of Mars, Mercury and Venus.
A New Perspective and New Aims
Although Apollo 11 captured hearts and headlines, the other missions earned acclaim for either setting the stage for the first moon walk or by following the lead of Armstrong and Aldrin and making more moon discoveries.
Yet, it is argued that it was a single color photograph — not a scientific sample — that changed humans’ perceptions of their place in space. Taken by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, “Earthrise” shows our blue and white globe climbing above the moon’s horizon. For the first time, Earthlings had an understanding of what our world looked like from space, giving many an appreciation of life, science and, for some, the need to better care for our only place to live.
Now, as NASA and other public and private space agencies aim to return to our lunar cousin — and potentially use it as a springboard to Mars and beyond — Apollo’s many discoveries are a reminder that the human quest to learn more about the universe should never cease for the simple reason that we’ll never know what we’ll find.