Touching the Moon
February 24, 2010
This is the Lunar Sample Return Facility at Johnson Space Center. Apollo 14 landed in the Fra Mauro formation, the intended site of Apollo 13. Sample 14003,96 was a contingency sample collected by the crew at the beginning of their first EVA in February 5, 1971. This returned sample was unopened by anyone in 38 years! Today is the great honour of touching the Moon.
Apollo samples are beyond priceless. Only by many months of applying and experimenting can one get a piece. 14003,96 is the largest sample ever released to researchers. The sample is handled here in the clean room, within a glovebox pressurised with nitrogen.
The sample is kept within this flying saucer-shaped container, sealed with many bolts. No one knows exactly what we will find within. Working within a glovebox is tricky, much like being on EVA. Removing the lid, we find 3 layers of heat-sealed plastic and another metal container.
Here is the first view of sample 14003,96. It will be used for some very important experiments.
Unlike Earth's surface, which has been renewed many times by plate tectonics, the lunar regolith is extremely ancient. The "Genesis Rock" found by Apollo 15 was 4.5 billion years old, nearly as ancient as the solar system. The lunar regolith is therefore a recorder of solar system history. It can give us a record of stellar variability, and whether dangerous supernovae have exploded nearby. Exploring the Moon is therefore valuable for uncovering Earth's history.
The regolith can also tell us how the Sun's luminosity has varied over time. The "Faint Young Sun" hypothesis claimed that the Sun has been slowly warming. According to this idea, 4 billion years ago Earth and Mars would have been frozen solid. Data from geology and paleontology does not support this hypothesis. Early in their history, both Earth and Mars were warm enough for liquid water and life.
The Sun turns fuel to energy according to E=mc^2. Because speed of light c has slowed over time, billions of years ago the Sun was nearly as bright as today. Evidence from Apollo missions to the lunar surface is smoking-gun evidence that the speed of light slows to this day. Whose pots are cracked now?
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