Newest Moon Rocks Analyzed in 40 Years

Some days at work, when I am in the Space hall at the Ontario Science Center, I take a close look at the golf-ball-sized Moon rock we have on display.  I think about how this rock was brought back on an Apollo mission over 40 years ago, how it had been an untouched part of the Moon for Billions of years before this, and how it has taught us so much about how the Moon, and subsequently the Earth, formed.  But now it’s time for a new generation of Moon rocks to be analyzed, and China is in the nation to do it.

The Chinese lunar rover, Yutu, photographed by its lander Chang’e-3, after the lander touched down in Mare Imbrium, a giant impact basin that had been filled by successive lava flows. Credit: CNsa/CLEP

The Yutu rover started moving around the Moon after it detached from it’s lander, Chang’e in 2013.  Landing in a relatively young Lava floodplain near an impact crater, the rover was able to drill beneath the lunar regolith and into the volcanic bedrock below.  Because this part of the Moon is younger relative to other parts of the Moon, the regolith is thinner, allowing the rover to drill into the rock layers and get a good sample of volcanic rocks.  This allowed for a comparison of the volcanic layers with compositional analysis from orbiting satellites.

The resulting samples from Yutu are different from anything seen by the old Apollo and Luna missions.  “The diversity tells us that the Moon’s upper mantle is much less uniform in composition than Earth’s,” said Bradley L. Jolliff, PhD, the Scott Rudolph Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, who is a participant in an educational collaboration that helped analyze Chang’e-3 mission data.. “And correlating chemistry with age, we can see how the Moon’s volcanism changed over time.”

It shows us that even a nearby body like the Moon can still surprise us when we analyze different regions with newer technology.  It shows that the Moon still has many secrets left to uncover, and with the Moon as a future launching point for deep space missions, the Moon will start to benefit humanity in ways we couldn’t imagine 40 years ago.


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