One small grain of moon dust, one giant leap for lunar studies

UChicago, Field Museum study uses new technique to analyze moon rocks atom by atom

Back in 1972, NASA sent its last team of astronauts to the Moon on the Apollo 17 mission. Since we haven’t returned to the moon in almost 50 years, every lunar sample they collected is precious.

In a new study in Meteoritics & Planetary Science, scientists found a new way to analyze the chemistry of the moon’s soil using a single grain of dust. Their technique can help us learn more about conditions on the surface of the moon and the formation of its precious resources like water and helium.

“We’re analyzing rocks from space, atom by atom,” said Jennika Greer, the paper’s first author and a graduate student at the University of Chicago and the Field Museum. “Because of something like this, we understand what the environment is like on the moon. It goes way beyond what even astronauts are able to tell us as they walk on the moon. This little grain preserves millions of years of history.”

Greer’s analysis only required one single grain of soil, about as wide as a human hair. In that tiny grain, she identified products of space weathering, pure iron, water and helium, which formed through the interactions of the lunar soil with the space environment. Extracting these precious resources from lunar soil could help future astronauts sustain their activities on the moon.

The technique is called atom probe tomography, and it’s normally used by materials scientists working to improve industrial processes like making steel and nanowires. But its ability to analyze tiny amounts of materials makes it a good candidate for studying lunar samples.

“We can apply this technique to samples no one has studied,” said Philipp Heck, associate professor at the University of Chicago, a curator at the Field Museum and co-author of the paper. “You’re almost guaranteed to find something new or unexpected. This technique has such high sensitivity and resolution, you find things you wouldn’t find otherwise, and only use up a small bit of the sample.”

To study the tiny grain, Greer used a focused beam of charged atoms to carve a tiny, super-sharp tip into its surface. This tip was only a few hundred atoms wide (for comparison, a sheet of paper is hundreds of thousands of atoms thick.) “We can use the expression ‘nanocarpentry,’” said Heck, who is an expert in analyzing cosmic dust and meteorites. “Like a carpenter shapes wood, we do it at the nanoscale to minerals.”

Once the sample was inside the atom probe at Northwestern University, Greer zapped it with a laser to knock atoms off one by one. As the atoms flew off the sample, they struck a detector plate. Heavier elements, like iron, take longer to reach the detector than lighter elements, like hydrogen. By measuring the time between the laser firing and the atom striking the detector, the instrument is able to determine the type of atom at that position and its charge.

Finally, Greer reconstructed the data in three dimensions, using a color-coded point for each atom and molecule to make a nanoscale 3-D map of the moon dust. 

This is the first time scientists can see both the type of atoms and their exact location in a speck of lunar soil.

“It’s great for comprehensively characterizing small volumes of precious samples,” Greer said. “We have these really exciting missions like Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-REx returning to Earth soon—uncrewed spacecrafts collecting tiny pieces of asteroids. This is a technique that should definitely be applied to what they bring back because it uses so little material but provides so much information.”

Studying soil from the moon's surface gives scientists insight into an important force within our solar system: space weathering. Space is a harsh environment, filled with tiny meteorites, streams of particles coming off the Sun and radiation in the form of solar and cosmic rays. While Earth's atmosphere protects us from space weathering, other bodies like the moon and asteroids don't have atmospheres. As a result, the soil on the moon’s surface has undergone changes caused by space weathering, making it fundamentally different from the rock that the rest of the moon is composed of. It’s kind of like a chocolate-dipped ice cream cone: the outer surface doesn’t match what’s inside.

By understanding the kinds of processes that make these differences happen, scientists can more accurately predict what’s just under the surface of moons and asteroids that are too far away to bring to Earth. 

Because Greer’s study used a nanosized tip, her original grain of lunar dust is still available for future experiments. This means new generations of scientists can make new discoveries and predictions from the same precious sample. “Fifty years ago, no one anticipated that someone would ever analyze a sample with this technique, and only using a tiny bit of one grain,” Heck said. “Thousands of such grains could be on the glove of an astronaut, and it would be sufficient material for a big study.” 

Greer and Heck emphasize the need for missions where astronauts bring back physical samples because of the variety of terrains in outer space.

“If you only analyze space weathering from one place on the moon, it’s like only analyzing weathering on Earth in one mountain range,” Greer said. “We need to go to other places and objects to understand space weathering in the same way we need to check out different places on Earth—like the sand in deserts and outcrops in mountain ranges on Earth. It’s important to understand these materials in the lab so we understand what we’re seeing when we look through a telescope.”

Citation: "Atom probe tomography of space‐weathered lunar ilmenite grain surfaces." Greer et al, Meteoritics & Planetary Science, Feb. 6, 2020.

Funding: TAWANI Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, Northwestern University, Field Museum’s Science and Scholarship Funding Committee.

–Adapted from an article by Natalie Dalea originally posted by the Field Museum.