A precious resource
Dauphas’ lab has a set of lunar rocks from each of the Apollo missions. With them, he and his lab investigate questions—from where and when the Earth got its water to the “paternity” of the moon.
Because some of the tests involve acid or other destructive processes, he and his team carefully calculate how much of the moon samples they will need for each test, and no more. In fact, some of the lunar samples were passed down from Prof. Clayton’s collection when he retired.
“We can get an incredible amount of information from a single grain,” said UChicago graduate student Jennika Greer. "By studying the surface of one particle collected by Apollo 17, we can learn about the environment on the moon and the space weather it’s been subjected to."
One of the tools they use is the Advanced Photon Source, located at nearby Argonne National Laboratory, which produces extremely energetic X-rays that can reveal what rocks look like at the molecular level.
Later this year, however, the Advanced Photon Source will host a special guest—a set of samples saved from the Apollo missions and never before opened.
Considered the most pristine samples ever made available by NASA, these select materials from Apollo missions 15, 16 and 17 have remained hermetically sealed since their collection, either vacuum sealed on the lunar surface, frozen or exposed only to helium and then sealed.
“Leave it to NASA to appreciate that they should store samples unopened because 40-50 years down the line there would be new ways to study them that weren’t available back then,” said Tony Lanzirotti, associate research professor at UChicago’s Center for Advanced Radiation Sources and a project member.
One particularly interesting question they’ll be investigating is what the interior of the moon looked like as it was forming. “These particles would have recorded the types of gases coming out of lunar volcanoes billions of years ago, and we can unlock those with the beamline,” said Steve Sutton, a research professor at UChicago who will be examining the rocks.
Fifty years later, it’s clear how valuable samples from the Apollo missions are to science.
“I can analyze them with entirely different technology today and find new answers to old questions,” Dauphas said. “It’s a good time to be studying the moon. There are a number of open questions, and always new ways to consider them.”
—John Spizzirri at Argonne National Laboratory contributed to this story.