UC Berkeley researchers team up with NASA to analyze Apollo mission moon samples

An astronaut stands on the moon.
NASA/Courtesy

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A team of UC Berkeley researchers was chosen as one of nine teams to analyze untouched moon samples collected during the last Apollo missions nearly 50 years ago, NASA announced in a press release Monday.

The team, led by UC Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory, or SSL, associate research chemist Kees Welten, will study how impacts from meteorites and micrometeorites may have affected the geology of the moon’s surface, NASA said in the statement.

Each research team submitted a proposal to NASA stating how and why it wanted to analyze the lunar samples, according to Welten. NASA’s Planetary Sciences Division issued a total of $8 million in grants to the nine teams that will be funded by the Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program.

In December 2017, President Donald Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1, which refocused NASA’s research on human space travel and encouraged efforts to send humans to the moon and, eventually, to Mars. The research conducted by the UC Berkeley team is a step toward fulfilling this presidential directive.

“I’m very excited,” Welten said. “These samples haven’t been studied before, and we don’t know what we’re going to find.”

Welten’s team includes SSL senior science fellow Kunihiko Nishiizumi as well as a Marc Caffee, head of the Purdue Rare Isotope Measurement Laboratory at Purdue University. The team — which may also include another UC Berkeley researcher, who has not yet been hired — will be studying samples of isotopes in the lunar regolith, or soil, that are produced by cosmic rays to analyze how frequently the moon’s regolith is mixed by bombardment from meteorites and micrometeorites. These isotopes can be found in varying levels in different layers of the moon.

Welten’s team has requested to study two core samples, each containing material about 60 centimeters deep from the Apollo 17 mission, and several soil samples collected from the moon’s surface. The samples will also be used to understand the history of their locations at collection. The information collected by Welten’s team and the other groups will be used in conjunction with satellite photos to understand the moon’s surface.

Welten’s team in Berkeley will separate the different isotopes in the lunar material samples before sending the samples to Caffee’s lab, where their compositions will be measured using a uniquely sensitive mass spectrometer.

“I think one of the reasons NASA is opening these samples now is that a lot of people involved in the early days (of the Apollo missions) … are getting old,” Welten said. “They have a lot of knowledge that they can still contribute right now.”

Welten added that one of the main purposes of return missions is to collect samples that will be studied immediately and also 10 to 30 years in the future, when technology and research methods have improved.

In this case, sample processing will most likely take six months to a year before research can begin, according to Welten.

“By studying these precious lunar samples for the first time, a new generation of scientists will help advance our understanding of our lunar neighbor and prepare for the next era of exploration of the Moon and beyond,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, in NASA’s first statement regarding the lunar sample research.

Contact Emily Hom at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @hom_emily.