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Saturday, July 11, 2020

Out of this world

By Kaeli Hearn


Western students were given the chance to hold rocks from the surface of the moon in their hands. Geology professor Ben Paulson wrote a letter to NASA requesting lunar samples, and they were delivered to Western.

The samples were brought into geology classes, such as mineralogy, where students spent time looking at thin sections of the material, Paulson said.

The loan period is very strict and limited to two weeks. Western had to meet certain criteria to get the samples, Paulson said.

To be eligible, the institution must have a standard petrographic microscope with reflected light capability to view the samples and the request for use should be in the interest of the students, according to NASA.

Samples of moon rocks on a disk. // Photo courtesy of Ben Paulson.

The samples have to be looked at through a specific microscope, which increases the quality of the image contrast more than other observation techniques. Geologists use what is called a petrographic microscope, which has polarizing light in it, to view the samples, Paulson said.

“As the light interacts with the minerals within those rocks, we can learn a lot of information and identify those minerals,” Paulson said.

Paulson completed his undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and started working at Western back in 2014, he said. 

This is the third year Western has loaned the samples from NASA, Paulson said.

According to NASA, petrographic thin section packages contain 12 polished sections of samples from either the Lunar or Meteorite collections. These are provided to colleges and universities.

“These samples are invaluable. You would have to go to the moon to get them back. They are essentially irreplaceable,” Paulson said.

Paulson brought the samples to Mineralogy 306, junior geology student Izabella Ogilvie said.

“What was really cool was we got to see all the samples in thin sections, which means the sample is cut into smaller sections on a piece of glass that goes under a microscope,” Ogilvie said.

Students learned a geologist collected these samples from the moon, so it is an example of some of the things students can do as a geologist, Ogilvie said.

Microscopic view of anorthosite. // Photo courtesy of Ben Paulson.

Ogilvie said they are lucky to see those kinds of things in the department because it is a good example of where one can go with geology and how it affects people and life, Ogilvie said.

Junior Xander Reitz was able to see the samples in two of his classes, astronomy and geology, he said.

“Looking at the soil itself was out of this world. I had never seen anything like it before,” Reitz said. “That is probably the oldest thing I’ll ever hold in my hands.”

The disks sent to Western are composed of lunar material. NASA passes out 180 of these acrylic disks, Paulson said.

Embedded in the disks are six samples of lunar material which include three rock types and three lunar soils, Paulson said.

One rock type is called basalt. When you look at the moon, the dark spots and craters you see are basalt, Paulson said.

Another material is called anorthosite, which is the brighter part of the moon, Paulson said.

The other rock type is called breccia. When the moon has impacts, such as meteors that hit the surface, the broken material gets crumbled together, liquefied and turned into the rock breccia, Paulson said.

These samples are not like soil on Earth. It is moon dust that has piled up over the past 4.5 billion years, Paulson said.

The samples range from 4.2 to 4.4 billion years old. There is nothing that old on Earth in terms of rocks, Paulson said.

Microscopic view of mare basalt. // Photo courtesy of Ben Paulson.

When the astronauts from the Apollo 17 mission went up to the moon to collect these samples, they found a spot of orange which may symbolize some kind of volcanic activity on the moon, Reitz said.

As good as it is to look at the information in textbooks, it is better to have it actually in your hand and look at it with your own eyes, Reitz said. He said it’s a humbling experience given how old the material samples are.

Paulson brought the samples into three different classes assistant professor Melissa Rice teaches.

Rice finished her Ph.D at Cornell University in astronomy and now is an assistant professor of planetary science at Western, she said. 

Rice worked on the Curiosity rover, a rover designed to explore Mars, Rice said.

“In my classes, since we do not have microscopes, we just passed around the disks with the small rocks embedded in them and got to look at them in some detail,” Rice said.

In one of Rice’s classes, as they passed around the rocks, she played the transcript of the astronauts discovering some of those very rocks on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 17 mission, she said.

“It is really neat to be holding a sample of this orange glass found on the moon while listening to the transcript from the early 1970s of these two men discovering the orange soil on the moon for the first time,” Rice said.

Rice hopes students understand the moon is a real place where humans have been, she said.

“The profound emotional impact of holding a rock from the moon is much more valuable than the strict educational impact from what we learn from seeing these moon rocks up close,” Rice said.

Paulson tried to request the lunar samples during different quarters, not just fall quarter, he said.

“That is why it is important for the students to see. Anything that can get students jazzed about science, into their major and excited about what they are doing, and the lunar rocks do that,” Paulson said.

Paulson will try and get the samples every year based on availability from NASA, he said.

“We are literally bringing the moon down to Earth for our students,” Rice said.


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