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Buzz Aldrin beside the ‘passive seismic experiment package’, with the Eagle lunar module in the background.
Buzz Aldrin beside the ‘passive seismic experiment package’, with the Eagle lunar module in the background.

Geological significance of Apollo 11 mission lives on

As the world marvels at the engineering feat that was Apollo 11, the ensuing five decades have shown the mission played an equally important role in advancing geological science.

The world has celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 20 July, 1969 moon landing, a monumental victory for science, engineering, technology and mankind.

A US assignment initially implemented to exert technological dominance over its Soviet Cold War enemy, it wasn’t until late in the program that the potential geological benefits came into clearer focus.

"The scientists wanted to learn more about the moon, but they were kind of secondary in the early days," Professor Simon Kelley, who heads the School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh, told dw.com. "So, it evolved through the program, but it wasn't until Apollo 17 – the final mission – that someone with a geology background actually went to the moon."

"It wouldn't look very good if we went to the moon and didn't have something to do when we got there." Max Faget, NASA

Kelly highlighted Max Faget, a director of engineering at NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center, who famously quipped prior to the Apollo 11 mission: "It wouldn't look very good if we went to the moon and didn't have something to do when we got there."

With that in mind, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin undertook rudimentary geological research at sites across the US, including the Grand Canyon in Arizona, where portions of land were blasted to replicate the moon’s cratered terrain. Their training reportedly involved learning to "see like a geologist”, to interpret the colouration of different rocks, as well as textures.

In the lead-up to the mission, historic images show Armstrong using a sample scoop device and rock hammer, while Aldrin practised documentation with the Hasselblad camera, both knowing their duty would be unfulfilled without lunar samples.

The Apollo 11 mission returned with 22kg of moon material in total, contributing to a total of 382kg collected across all six Apollo missions from 1969 to 1972.

Precious cargo

According to Science.org, the first lunar samples were quarantined for weeks, with researchers protecting them from potential contamination. Additionally, no one knew whether there was life on the moon, or whether the samples could be harmful to human life.

Today, the majority of the samples are contained in nitrogen-filled, see-through tanks at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, and can only be handled with specialised gloves.

NASA has sent approximately 50,000 individual samples to 500 research labs in more than 15 countries but some 80 per cent of the original samples remain untouched.

Samples collected from various sites indicate the youngest areas of the moon are lowlands filled with basaltic lava relatively late in the moon’s formation and typically consist of rocks that are 3.2 billion years old.

“Rocks from the older lunar highlands date to some 4.4 billion years ago,” Astronomy.com reports. “The youngest geological actions on the moon, based on crater counts, probably were lava flows about 1.2 billion years ago. But, alas, we have no samples of these very young lunar rocks.

“Mineralogically, most moon rocks are pretty simple. Common lunar minerals include silicates, made up of silicon and other elements like calcium, aluminium, oxygen, magnesium, and iron.”

 

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IMAGE GALLERY

Aldrin
Aldrin's boot print was actually part of an experiment to test the properties of the lunar regolith.
Aldrin (left) and fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong undertook rudimentary geological training at sites across the US before making their sojourn to the moon.
Aldrin (left) and fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong undertook rudimentary geological training at sites across the US before making their sojourn to the moon.

 

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