One small grain of moon dust, one giant leap for lunar studies


IMAGE: Apollo 17 astronaut and geologist Harrison Schmitt in 1972 gathering samples of lunar soil that would later on be utilized in this research study.
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Credit: NASA

Back in 1972, NASA sent their last group of astronauts to the Moon in the Apollo 17 objective. These astronauts brought some of the Moon back to Earth so researchers might continue to study lunar soil in their laboratories. Because we have not gone back to the Moon in practically 50 years, every lunar sample is valuable. We require to make them count for scientists now and in the future. In a brand-new research study in Meteoritics & Planetary Science, researchers discovered a brand-new method to evaluate the chemistry of the Moon’s soil utilizing a single grain of dust. Their method can assist us find out more about conditions on the surface area of the Moon and development of valuable resources like water and helium there.

“We’re analyzing rocks from space, atom by atom,” states Jennika Greer, the paper’s very first author and a PhD trainee at the Field Museum and University of Chicago. ” It’s the very first time a lunar sample has actually been studied like this. We’re utilizing a strategy lots of geologists have not even heard of.

“We can apply this technique to samples no one has studied,” Philipp Heck, a manager at the Field Museum, associate teacher at the University of Chicago, and co-author of the paper, includes. “You’re almost guaranteed to find something new or unexpected. This technique has such high sensitivity and resolution, you find things you wouldn’t find otherwise and only use up a small bit of the sample.”

The method is called atom probe tomography (APT), and it’s usually utilized by products researchers working to enhance commercial procedures like making steel and nanowires. However its capability to evaluate small quantities of products makes it a great prospect for studying lunar samples. The Apollo 17 sample consists of 111 kgs (245 pounds) of lunar rocks and soil—the grand plan of things, not a great deal, so scientists need to utilize it carefully. Greer’s analysis just needed one single grain of soil, about as broad as a human hair. Because small grain, she determined items of space weathering, pure iron, water and helium, that formed through the interactions of the lunar soil with the space environment. Drawing out these valuable resources from lunar soil might assist future astronauts sustain their activities on the Moon.

To study the small grain, Greer utilized a concentrated beam of charged atoms to sculpt a small, super-sharp suggestion into its surface area. This suggestion was just a few hundred atoms broad—for contrast, a sheet of paper is hundreds of thousands of atoms thick. “We can use the expression nanocarpentry,” states Philipp Heck. “Like a carpenter shapes wood, we do it at the nanoscale to minerals.”

Once the sample was inside the atom probe at Northwestern University, Greer zapped it with a laser to knock atoms off one by one. As the atoms flew off the sample, they struck a detector plate. Much heavier components, like iron, take longer to reach the detector than lighter components, like hydrogen. By determining the time in between the laser shooting and the atom striking the detector, the instrument has the ability to identify the type of atom at that position and its charge. Lastly, Greer rebuilded the information in 3 measurements, utilizing a color-coded point for each atom and particle to make a nanoscale 3D map of the Moon dust.

It’s the very first time researchers can see both the type of atoms and their precise area in a speck of lunar soil. While APT is a popular method in product science, no one had actually ever attempted utilizing it for lunar samples prior to. Greer and Heck motivate other cosmochemists to attempt it out. “It’s great for comprehensively characterizing small volumes of precious samples,” Greer states. “We have these really exciting missions like Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-REx returning to Earth soon—uncrewed spacecrafts collecting tiny pieces of asteroids. This is a technique that should definitely be applied to what they bring back because it uses so little material but provides so much information.”

Studying soil from the moon’s surface area provides researchers insight into a crucial force within our Solar System: space weathering. Space is an extreme environment, with small meteorites, streams of particles coming off the Sun, and radiation in the type of solar and cosmic rays. While Earth’s environment safeguards us from space weathering, other bodies like the Moon and asteroids do not have environments. As an outcome, the soil on the Moon’s surface area has actually gone through modifications triggered by space weathering, making it essentially various from the rock that the rest of the Moon is made up of. It’s kind of like a chocolate-dipped ice cream cone: the external surface area does not match what’s within. With APT, researchers can look for distinctions in between space weathered surface areas and unexposed moon dirt in such a way that no other technique can. By comprehending the kinds of procedures that make these distinctions take place, they can more properly forecast what’s simply under the surface area of moons and asteroids that are too far to give Earth.

Because Greer’s research study utilized a nanosized suggestion, her initial grain of lunar dust is still offered for future experiments. This suggests brand-new generations of researchers can make brand-new discoveries and forecasts from the exact same valuable sample. “Fifty years ago, no one anticipated that someone would ever analyze a sample with this technique, and only using a tiny bit of one grain,” Heck states. “Thousands of such grains could be on the glove of an astronaut, and it would be sufficient material for a big study.”

Greer and Heck stress the requirement for objectives where astronauts restore physical samples since of the range of surfaces in external space. “If you only analyze space weathering from the one place on the Moon, it’s like only analyzing weathering on Earth in one mountain range,” Greer states. We require to go to other locations and challenge comprehend space weathering in the exact same method we require to have a look at various put on Earth like the sand in deserts and outcrops in range of mountains in the world.”

We do not yet understand what surprises we may discover from space weathering. “It’s important to understand these materials in the lab so we understand what we’re seeing when we look through a telescope,” Greer states. “Because of something like this, we comprehend what the environment resembles on the Moon. It goes method beyond what astronauts have the ability to inform us as they stroll on the Moon. This little grain protects millions of years of history.

The arise from this research study persuaded NASA to money the Field Museum and Northwestern group and coworkers from Purdue for the next 3 years to study various types of lunar dust with APT to measure its water material and to study other elements of space weathering.


Funding for this work was offered by the TAWANI Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, Northwestern University and the Field Museum’s Science and Scholarship Funding Committee.

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