When Apollo 11 took off for the Moon, 50 years ago this week, one of the mission's main objectives was to retrieve rocks for scientists to study back here on Earth.
Some of those specimens have remained sealed, but NASA recently announced that nine research teams around the country would be allowed to conduct new tests on those rocks.
Darby Dyar, a professor at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., leads one of the teams getting a batch of the rocks.
"Of course, I was very excited," said Dyar, who is also affiliated with the Planetary Science Institute. "I am old enough that I was able to watch all these Apollo samples come back and I saw the astronauts lifting them out of the capsule and onto the boat," she said. "To see that I actually get to work on something that I saw on the fuzzy black and while TV image 50 years ago is actually pretty neat."
Getting new rocks will allow Dyar to continue researching tiny glass beads that formed inside the rocks after lunar eruptions.
Tiny samples like these could help answer some of humanity’s biggest questions, according to Dyar: "Understanding how planets form, how water, in particular, is distributed between planets and moons, like our moon, is a question that has profound implications for habitability, and for questions like, are we alone?"
A dozen astronauts collected a total of 842 pounds of rock between 1969 to 1972.
The smallest batch, just 48 pounds, was from Apollo 11, as NASA didn’t want to keep Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin on their mission any longer than necessary.
Laurie Leshin, the current president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute who worked at NASA before coming to Worcester, thinks there’s still a lot to learn by going back to the moon.
"Imagine exploring the Earth by only touching six different places on its surface," said Leshin. "We wouldn’t really have a full understanding of our own planet so there’s a ton more to learn, but the most important thing that we’ll learn by going back to the Moon is how to live permanently off our planet," she said.
Here on Earth, Dyar expects to get her new rocks, delivered by USPS, sometime early next year. She considers it an honor. "It’s important to stress that these samples are a national treasure," Dyar said, "They have absolutely no value in some ways because they can’t be bought or sold, but they are priceless."
Another reason scientists are so excited to have access to these previously unsealed rocks is the improved tools they have in the labs today.
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