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NASA opens a new collection of moon rocks to researchers

Johnson Space Center in Houston houses more than 2,000 samples collected over six Apollo missions between 1969 and 1972 from various parts of the moon. The collection includes rocks, core samples, pebbles and dust that scientists are still learning from 50 years later. Hari Sreenivasan reports on the laboratory keeping these artifacts safe.

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  • Judy Allton:

    Rocks all have stories. So the trick is trying to read the story.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Judy Allton has worked with moon rocks as a curator for two decades. On our visit to the Johnson Space Center she showed me some of the more than 2,000 samples collected over six Apollo missions to the moon.

  • Judy Allton:

    These rocks, the breccias have pieces in them. They're from different parts of the moon. They're like brand new samples each little piece.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Most of the rocks and soil gathered from the moon missions are housed here in the Lunar Sample Lab, kept pristine to prevent contamination.

  • Judy Allton:

    In this large open room samples here are handled inside those glove boxes under very pure nitrogen. We restrict the type of materials that can come in contact with the rock to very few.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Even the building material in the lab required extra attention. Special floors and lights were chosen to minimize potential chemical damage to the samples.

  • Astronaut:

    Very fine particles

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But for all the care taken, Allton said in the run up to the first moon mission, bringing back lunar samples was not on the radar of many at NASA.

  • Judy Allton:

    I know a lot of the people that participated in Apollo, the astronauts, the flight controllers, the engineers that was not their focus. But the geologists thought we're going to go all the way there. If we had those samples back in our laboratory we could make measurements you can never make remotely.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The rocks astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong brought back to Earth were sent to Houston. The containers were then placed in a vacuum chamber and opened to begin the research process.

    Geology instruction was expanded in subsequent moon missions.

  • Judy Allton:

    A lot of the people that worked here helped train the astronauts in geology. They went on field trips. And some of them really took it to heart. When they got on the moon. They were giving vivid descriptions of the terrain.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Harrison Schmitt helped train previous astronauts and in 1972 he became the first geologist on the moon as part of the Apollo 17 mission. He spent more than 20 hours on the surface of the moon, collecting samples and extracting soil.

  • Harrison Schmitt:

    Here I am folks in the middle of a boulder field just minding my own business.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All told there were four years of moon missions, which yielded a diversity of rocks for study. The lunar lab now distributes close to 700 samples to researchers across the world every year.

  • Judy Allton:

    Every once in a while when we think we need to look at more rocks we'd slice that like bread. So each time you pull it off you could uncover a new rock type.

  •  Hari Sreenivasan:

    So people are still learning new things from these rocks.

  • Judy Allton:

    Oh you bet.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Some of what researchers have learned has been stunning. For example, the moon and earth have a common ancestry.

    And because of the rocks, we now know that the moon is about 4.5 billion years old, around the same age as the Earth.

    But scientists believe there are still more secrets to be uncovered and this year NASA is opening its vaults to study samples not touched since they returned from the Apollo missions.

    They plan to analyze the rocks using 21st century technology.

    But if this isn't enough, well, it turns out our next mission to the lunar surface involves a lot of rock and soil collection.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So in 2024 for, all things going well, we go back up to the moon and we're still going to collect rocks. What are we going to find out now that we haven't learned in the last 50 years?

  • Judy Allton:

    We've been to six places on the moon, the Soviets went to three and they shared their samples with us. That's not a lot of area. Samples given out now for research are very tiny. So if an engineer needs a larger amount to conduct the kinds of experiments engineers do having access to a wide range materials would be good.

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