Students Get to Study Moon Rocks in Classroom

NASA Loans Lunar Specimens Collected by Apollo Astronauts

UMass Lowell Image
This close-up view of pieces of breccia from the Moon shows light-colored rock fragments and mineral grains embedded in a dark matrix. The 4-billion-year-old specimens each measure about 5 mm wide. They were part of a sample collected from the Moon’s Taurus-Littrow valley by the Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

From 1969 to 1972, a total of 12 American astronauts walked on the surface of the Moon as part of NASA’s Apollo lunar exploration program. In addition to taking thousands of photos, they brought home with them a total of 841.4 pounds (381.7 kilograms) of lunar rocks and soils from six different sites. Most of these priceless materials are stored at the Lunar Sample Laboratory Facility in Houston. The rest are distributed around the country for research and educational purposes.

Thanks to the efforts of physics Prof. Supriya Chakrabarti, students in earth sciences and physics had a chance to see and examine up-close a set of lunar specimens loaned by NASA’s Johnson Space Center during two special lunar geology seminars held in April at Ball Hall.

“I feel that students learn best when they make a connection,” notes Chakrabarti. “In our class we talk about planetary geology, and being able to hold in your hand some material from another celestial body and then look into the details through state-of-the-art tools provides a connection that goes beyond intellectual curiosity.”

The samples in the set, which were collected during the Apollo 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17 missions, consisted of tiny pieces of basalt, breccia and anorthosite as well as some grains of mare, highland and orange soils encased in a 6-inch clear acrylic disk. Also included in the set are a dozen polished thin sections of lunar rocks mounted on slides for viewing through a petrographic microscope.

NASA makes the sets freely available for classroom instruction to K–12 schools as well as colleges and universities in the United States. This is the first time such a set had been brought to UMass Lowell. The lunar samples are U.S. Government property and are considered “irreplaceable,” so the University Police, in coordination with Deputy Chief Ron Dickerson, provided security and safe-keeping throughout their three-week stay on campus.

“The Moon rocks are simply amazing,” says Alison O’Connor, a senior majoring in environmental geoscience. “It’s incredible to see rocks and minerals in their pristine condition, untouched by chemical weathering, unlike those here on Earth.”

She says she feels the Moon is “timeless.”

“It will never change, so to speak. The footprints left by the astronauts on the lunar dust will be there for millions of years,” says O’Connor. “This is one of the reasons I studied geology at UMass Lowell — geology can take you to very interesting places. It can even take you to the Moon!”

An Out-of-this-World Learning Experience

“How many students can say they have held in their hands something that most people of the world can only see or imagine?” asks Chakrabarti. “Add to that an explanation that these pieces of the Moon have not changed in 4.5 billion years — the implications are profound.”

Prof. Nelson Eby, chair of the Department of Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, gave students an introduction to the Moon’s geologic history during the seminars. He then let them look at the thin sections to see the characteristics of the various minerals under plain polarized light. Eby also showed how the minerals’ interference colors changed under cross-polarized light as the microscope stage was rotated.

“The Moon rocks have relatively simple chemistry,” explains Eby. “They are made up mainly of four minerals: plagioclase, pyroxene, olivine and ilmenite.”

“It’s so fascinating to look at the lunar materials,” says Pallavi Doradla, a physics graduate student. “We have heard about the different rocks and minerals found on the Moon but we didn’t have a chance to see them firsthand, until now. We would like to thank Professor Chakrabarti and Professor Eby for giving us the opportunity to ‘explore’ the Moon. We really appreciate it.”

“I hope this seminar will become a regular feature in our future classes, not just in physics or earth sciences,” says Chakrabarti. “I hope that the emotional connection will lead other classes to find use of parts of the Moon in their curricula.”