Ed Mitchell, one of the Apollo 14 astronauts, on the mission to collect samples from the Moon in 1971 © NASA

Ed Mitchell, one of the Apollo 14 astronauts, on the mission to collect samples from the Moon in 1971 © NASA

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NASA scientist arrives to scan Apollo 14 Moon rock

Museum scans of 3.9-billion-year-old Apollo Moon rock could expose new insights into the Moon's geological history.

NASA Apollo sample curator Ryan Zeigler has made a whistle-stop visit to the Museum to scan a 3.9-billion-year-old sample from the Apollo 14 space mission.

Promise for future research

The sample, collected from the surface of the Moon by astronauts in 1971, is a breccia, a rock made up from other rocks, formed through impacts on the lunar surface.

Resembling a lump of concrete, the piece measures about 10x4cm and is triple-sealed in clear Teflon bags containing dry nitrogen to protect it from contamination.

The Museum's advanced micro-CT scanner, which is about 50 times more powerful than a medical x-ray machine, will hit the rock with a cone beam of x-rays for about two hours.

With the help of powerful computers, Museum scientists will then construct a three-dimensional digital model of the sample for analysis.

Dr Zeigler said, 'I'm really enjoying the opportunity to work at the NHM with its unique combination of top-notch scientists and cutting-edge CT facilities. Hopefully this project will demonstrate how useful the technique is for future curation of Apollo samples, and enhance our existing successful collaboration.'

Unlocking the Moon's history

The sample contains pieces of basalt, known as clasts. These basalts are particularly interesting to scientists because they are among the oldest ever found on the Moon.

Dr Zeigler is hoping the scan will also reveal evidence of granite or other interesting rock types. The presence of granite would provide further insight into the geological history of the Moon.

Astronauts collected 42kg of rocks and soil for return to Earth during the Apollo 14 mission, which involved six nerve-wracking attempts to dock the lunar module used to collect the samples. Dr Zeigler estimates that NASA currently holds around 400kg of Moon rock.

Although the sample was first analysed during the 1970s, Dr Zeigler said that advancing technologies allow us to learn more about the Moon and update some of our theories about its formation and evolution.

Dr Zeigler hopes that further exploration of different areas of the Moon will turn out additional valuable samples for analysis.

CT scanning at the Museum

The Museum's micro-CT scanner plays a vital role in maintaining the collection. It was originally purchased as part of a research project examining the brain cases of dinosaurs.

Micro-CT (micro computed tomography) is a non-destructive technique that scientists use to examine and reconstruct objects from the Museum’s collections, including the brains of bumble bees, mandibles of biting insects, fish preserved in alcohol and meteorites.

Some of the Museum's commercial Micro-CT projects include the study of cardiovascular systems and the development of next generation medical stents.