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UNM gets a piece of the moon

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Chip Shearer, a research scientist with UNM’s Institute of Meteoritics, talks about studying moon rocks that were collected by Apollo 17 astronauts. A team from UNM will take part in studying the samples later this year. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

For three days in December 1972, New Mexico native and Apollo astronaut Harrison Schmitt was one of two space travelers who drilled into the surface of the moon’s Taurus-Littrow valley to collect rock samples. No one has been on the moon since.

Several of the rock samples collected, NASA decided at the time, would be put into a vacuum-sealed container while the astronauts were still on the surface of the moon. The rocks have remained sealed for nearly five decades.

Later this year, students from the University of New Mexico and other institutions and universities will be the first to study the preserved moon samples.

Using technological advancements of the past half-century, NASA is hopeful a fresh look at the old rocks will advance our understanding of the moon.

Former New Mexico U.S. senator and astronaut Harrison Schmitt.

“They really wanted to hold back on some samples because technologies change, our insights into the moon change, and therefore having new samples for a new generation of scientists is really important,” said Chip Shearer, a professor in the Institute of Meteoritics who is leading the UNM team. “We can use instruments to look at samples almost on the atom scale, which we didn’t have 50 years ago.”

NASA announced earlier this month that UNM was among nine teams selected to study the moon rocks. The project will come with $8 million to be shared by the nine groups.

Some of the examinations will require advanced instruments at UNM’s Albuquerque campus. Shearer said he is hopeful those tests will be conducted in summer or fall.

Astronaut Schmitt, who is also a geologist, is going to join UNM’s team.

Schmitt is a Silver City native and a former U.S. senator representing New Mexico who now lives in Albuquerque.

Shearer said he hopes making the team “multi-generational” by having Schmitt work with young researchers will motivate the latter.

NASA astronaut Harrison Schmitt uses an adjustable sampling scoop to collect lunar samples during Apollo 17’s trip to the moon in December 1972. (NASA)

“Most of the scientists, engineers and explorers from Apollo are in their 80s now, and it’s a good time to bring those people back and interact with them … for the future generation of scientists,” Shearer said.

Schmitt didn’t return calls for comment left last week and this week.

UNM’s team will examine a variety of moon rocks. Some have been vacuum-sealed since being taken from the moon, and other rocks have been exposed to Earth’s atmosphere. The sealed rock samples have been stored at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and the other rocks are at White Sands Missile Range, Shearer said.

Shearer said the stainless steel, vacuum-sealed container will be opened at the space center in a controlled environment. Additional examinations will be done on UNM’s campus, he said.

UNM was selected for the project because of faculty expertise on the subject and the instruments that the university has on campus, Shearer said.

The Institute of Meteoritics in Northrop Hall has mass spectrometers, transmission electron microscopes and electron microscopes that will be used in the project, Shearer said.

He said he’s been writing proposals to the U.S. space agency for about 10 years seeking permission to perform experiments on the moon rocks.

One such experiment will be to look at hydrogen isotopes in the samples to understand where the hydrogen in the moon’s soil came from. That could provide insight into resources on the moon’s landscape, which could be tapped into during future space explorations, Shearer said.

“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,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C., said in a prepared statement. “This exploration will bring with it new and unique samples into the best labs right here on Earth.”

UNM’s Institute of Meteoritics is part of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, which has the high-powered instruments that will be used in the experiments. Shearer said he is writing proposals to NASA to determine UNM’s slice of the research funding.

UNM’s team, according to a NASA news release, will study samples from a valley on the moon that was cold enough for water to freeze – a “cold trap.” It will be the first time a sample from one of these cold traps will be examined in the lab, according to the release.

Shearer said that in addition to university faculty, graduate students are going to participate in the project, and he’s still looking for one or two undergraduates to be part of the team.

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