In a glorious white space at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, a clear plastic coffin is filled with bits of sky. Inside are meteorites recovered from Antarctic ice and grains of material believed to anticipate the formation of our solar system. These are treasures, helping us understand that people understand our place among the stars.
From the coffin, the geologist Kate Burgess draws another treasure: a small Teflon vial, double-wrapped in Teflon bags. It contains soil from the moon, collected by the astronauts in Apollo 17 in 1972.
For a very long time, the soil rested undisturbed on the moon, only exposed to the enormous radiation in the room. When Burgess looks at the sample with an electron microscope so vigorously, it can look down to the atomic magnitude she seeks evidence of how the exposure to that radiation changed the earth color. It sounds like little-bore science. But it is in need of a great, even beautiful idea.
Burgess is working to make moon clouds a reference guide to the greater cosmos. She examines how much of the earth's color comes from its composition (what it is made of) and how much comes from space values. She says finding out will help identify the composition of objects – like asteroids – seen by telescopes.
In this way, the lunar samples are a link between us and the sky, which helps us look deeper into them and understand what we find. For planetary researchers, research on lunar samples is invaluable. Unlike Earth, the moon has not changed much since it formed. It makes it a time capsule, a Genesis book for the geologically inclined.
In other words: Moon Rocks Rock.
Scientists are still studying moon samples from Apollo Moon landings. But there is now renewed interest in sending people back to the moon for more.
President Trump wants them to come there in 2024. (We must look at it.) And planetary scientists seep over the possibility of studying rocks from the lunar south pole and the moon side that never faces the Earth. Whether a moon shift is worth the price at this time is debatable. But the planetary scientists I talked to all said at least that would lead to important scientific gains.
That's because the moon's rocks we've told an incredible story about our place in the universe. The more we can gather, the more we learn.
Why the Moon is so Darned Important to Planetary Science
The Moon Landings – the first that Apollo 11 happened 50 years ago in July – was about many things: beating the Soviets in the space race, the technical puzzle of sending people to the moon surface, the challenge for a challenge. But they were also about geology. During the six-month landings, astronauts brought 842 pounds of moon's rocks, pebbles and earth.
It is not an exaggeration to say that these stones changed our understanding of our solar system and rewrote its history. "Before Apollo, we really didn't know how the moon formed," says Juliane Gross, a planet researcher at Rutgers University.
Studying geology is studying history. But the Earth is constantly slipping its old geological record.
"The Earth is a giant recycling machine," says Gross. "We have wind, we have rain, we have ice and weather, and so all the stones go away." Earth's crust is dynamic; our continents flow, move and change. Through the ages, stones are recycled, remelted and reformed as continents enter into each other.
The moon did not at all its history. Except for asteroid effects, Gross says, "the moon hasn't changed much since its formation." It makes it a time capsule, a big book for the history of our solar system.
In a moon rock "you have this little treasure chest in your hands," says Gross. As she grew up, she had a dream of becoming an astronaut, who eventually became swollen with her sensitivity to exercise disease. Working with these stones, she says, "It's so close that I can become an astronaut." But instead of exploring the space, she and her colleagues are investigating time.
"The crust is basically an archive," Gross says. "And we need to learn to interpret and how to read that archive." One of his most important lessons is about how the earth and the moon were formed in the first place.
Moon Blocks Tells the Story of Creation
The picture below shows a 4-pound moonstone restored in 1972 from Apollo 16. It is mainly made of plagioclase, a stone formed of molten magma. Rocks like this make up most of the lunar crust. And it tells scientists, the moon had a very violent beginning.
About 4.5 billion years ago, when the solar system was still in its infancy, it was a much more chaotic place.
Not long before (cosmically speaking), the sun had blown up with joining hydrogen atoms from a huge gas bullet and burning a fire burning to this day. And the young star was still surrounded by pieces of waste that clumped together, smashed into each other and formed the planets.
It is believed that the earth (or more like a forerunner) around that time was hit by another planet, perhaps the size of Mars.
The resulting disaster melted the two worlds together and formed our Earth. The power of the force ejected material from both bodies, and the material melted together to form our moon. The early moon was covered in a sea of magma, which settled and cooled in the form we know today.
In this way, the earth and the moon were a (brotherly) twin birth.
But wait, how do we think all this on a dull old white rock?
The answer is a little simple. Plagioclase is not very dense; It is the type of mineral you expect to appear on the surface of a magma sea as it cools down. When the moon was formed, the plagioclase "actually rose to the surface of the moon and began to create a crust," said Darby Dyar, a senior scientist at the planetary science institute who has been studying moonlighting for decades.
Scientists are still discussing the details of this hypothesis. But it seems reasonable because the earth and the moon are made of similar base materials (suggesting that they were created by the same source material) and because the material was melted at the time they formed (due to the power of the force). 19659036] But that's just the beginning of the story, says the moonlight.
Which lunar craters can tell us about the history of the solar system
Much of the "archive" of the lunar crust is its craters. And researchers have been able to use the Apollo tests to accurately date these craters.
The moon has changed much less than Earth, but that does not mean that it has not changed at all. Asteroids have hit it again and again, leading to the pockmarked surface we can see in the night sky. These craters tell the story of what happened in the solar system after the earth, and the moon was formed.
By age-dating lunar craters, we can age-date craters elsewhere. The larger the craters, the longer they were made (because larger pieces of dirt were more common longer back in time). "And now … we have a beautiful power history for the solar system," Dyar says. There are craters on other planets such as. Mercury. We now know the age of mercury craters "because we have a reference set of information from the moon."
Learn how old lunar craters are then led to another astonishing hypothesis: that the outer planets – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune – have changed their orbits over their lifetimes.
Craters show that about 600 million years after the planets had formed a period of heavy bombardment, the moon was smuggled with many asteroids. This was strange. The astridic pace of asteroid collisions should have settled then.
So what explains the effects during this time? One possible idea is that if the large gas giant planets moved closer to the sun and then farther away, they would have disturbed the asteroids, and they would have thrown the asteroids around, "the collisions create, Gross said. But if this is the case, but without moon rocks, they could not have considered the matter at all.
Why scientists want more moon tests
We have learned a ton from less than a ton of the moonstones, but these planetarologists are hungry for One of the reasons is that all the Apollo missions landed close to the lunar equator.
Will the researchers study samples from other areas? "Oh, hell yes," says Gross. "Absolutely."
"To trying to interpret something about the moon's history from a few hundred kilos of stone is very frustrating, "says Dyar, adding that we have no samples from the far side of the moon at all." We do not know what other interesting science we will find. "The White House is currently pushing NASA to send humans to the moon again in 2024. For now, the plan is for these astronauts to visit the Moon's South Pole at a crater called the South Pole-aitken basin – one of the largest, deepest and therefore the oldest of the lunar craters. It is possible that the effect that created the pool was so powerful that it exposed the mantle or the interior of the moon.
Scientists cannot directly study the earth's mantle. The moon's would be the second best thing. "If we can get some of it back, it would be quite spectacular," Gross says. It can help us understand why Earth has such active geology, and the moon does not.
Burgess hopes that if people come to the moon, they can bring home some samples from areas that have not been exposed to so much space radiation so that she can see a more untouched example of an untamed space rock. Again, it is able to understand what other objects – those we do not have pieces of – are made of.
And that knowledge could have many practical consequences. For example, in the future, if people want to start mining asteroids for metals and minerals, it will be very useful to know the exact geological makeup of a particular asteroid before we arrive.
There are many reasons to return to humans for the moon and establish a more permanent presence there. The moon would be a good laboratory to teach astronauts how to better survive long, lonely missions in deep space. It would be a good starting point for missions to Mars, or in addition. And it might be a place to recall natural resources.
One of Burgess's favorite discoveries is bits of helium, she found stuck in teeny pits on lunar sample of dirt. Helium "is some of the sun caught in the moon," she says. The sun explodes gases and particles in all directions, and our moon absorbed some of them as a sponge. The discovery is as poetic as it is practical: Helium is an ever smaller resource on earth. Maybe we can learn to harvest it from the moon.
Moon blocks represent what happens when man's curiosity is allowed to flourish
Studying the moon is studying the earth and wondering: How special is our world?
"I always think that the most important issue for man beings to answer is the question of, are we alone?" Dyar says. "Is the earth unique?" And in a small way, we help study a pile of moon clouds to answer the question.
Find out how our solar system formed, how our planet formed, helps us understand how rare we are and how special a place this really is. What if a Mars-sized body never collided with a soil size? Was it such a disaster somehow necessary for the chain of events that led to life for you and me for pizza?
If the moon never existed, the earth would be very different (there would not be sea times, for example). But we would also be different. And we could possibly be less curious about our place in the universe.
Without the moon, "I think humanity would probably never look up into the sky [and thought]," Oh, this object is pretty close, let's try to get there, "Gross says." So we would never have had the curiosity to develop our technology and tools to leave our own planet. "
The moon is for many reasons our first step to the larger space and the mysteries that lie inside. I do not know if we need to get more moon clouds in 2024 specifically, but sometime we have to go back one day.
Additional reporting by Byrd Pinkerton; graphics by Javier Zarracina / Vox