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The Apollo programme was the US human space project founded by NASA to fulfil US President John F. Kennedy’s goal of landing man on the Moon. Armstrong and his fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin did just that, after touching down the lunar lander Eagle on the dusty surface on July 20, 1969. The pair spent two-and-a-quarter hours exploring and collecting more than 20kg of rock samples, before burying the US flag into the Moon’s surface and blasting back to Earth.
Overall the Apollo programme returned 382kg of lunar rocks and soil, greatly contributing to the understanding of the Moon’s composition and geological history.
From big chunks to mere dust, the samples retrieved nearly a half-century ago during the six manned landings are kept secure at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas, and the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico.
And biologist Dr Joe Hanson got to visit one of them during his ‘Apollo’s Most Important Discovery’ documentary on YouTube channel ‘It’s Okay To Be Smart’.
NASA’s Apollo Sample Curator Ryan Zeigler told viewers: “This is a US Federal Reserve Bank vault from 1978.
“There is no price on what’s inside this, it’s invaluable. 70 percent of the Moon rocks on Earth are inside this vault.
“If you turn that counter-clockwise we can open the door.”
Dr Hanson explained what was stored within the vault.
He said: “That door weighed more than 4,000kg and behind it are more than 300kg of rocks brought back to Earth by astronauts on six of the Apollo missions.
“Back in the Sixties, even though scientists had figured out enough science to put people on the Moon, they still didn’t know how it had formed.
“The rocks we brought back were the key to unlocking this centuries-long mystery.
“In 1969, during the very first moonwalk, one astronaut made a lucky decision that gave scientists the hint they’d been waiting for.
“At the last minute, right before they launched back to Earth, something happened.”
Mr Zeilgler explained why the Moon rocks were so important.
He said: “This was the last sample collected on Apollo 11, as Neil Armstrong was outside the Lunar Excursion Module, getting ready to seal up the rock box.
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“He looked inside and thought it looked kind of empty, so he decided to shovel four lots of dirt into the rock box and then sealed it up.
“It turned out to be this sample, and it was the largest single sample brought back.”
Dr Hanson went on to explain how this sample helped solve an ancient mystery.
He added: “It became a really important sample, because as people looked through it, they found little fragments of white rock and they thought it was anorthosite.
“To understand why the scoop of soil was such a big deal, we need to back this story up to 1609, in Florence, where Galileo had taken a new invention called a Peerspicillum and aimed it at the Moon.
“Today, we call that invention a telescope. Across the terminator, the line of light and shadow stretching across the partial Moon, Galileo saw it had areas of high and low terrain.
“He thought that, like on Earth, the darker, low-lying areas were seas, so-called them ‘Maria’ and Apollo 11 touched down in one of these.”
And the science writer and presenter explained how it led to a breakthrough in understanding the lunar body.
“The Moons highlands, on the other hand, were lighter in colour, like where Apollo 16 landed.
“All of this told us that the Moon was really old, and after billions of years of impacts with space rocks, the outer five to 15 metres of the Moon’s surface had been ground up into stuff called ‘regolith’.
“That’s what Neil Armstrong scooped up. But in that, scientists found 84 specs of white stuff that they didn’t expect to.
“This sent scientists on a hunt for an explanation and they found that for that white anorthosite to get to the Sea of Tranquility, it must have been blasted there by a giant impact, like a meteorite, from the Moon’s highlands.
“And if the highlands – which cover most of the Moon – were anorthosite, that meant most of the Moon was covered in white rock.”
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