NASA loans geology department lunar rocks

Assistant professor of geological sciences Nicholas Warner obtained a sample of 14 lunar rocks to utilize in his planetary geology classroom. Lent from National Aeronautics and Space Administration from Sept. 26 to Sept. 30, this rock set is one of only 20 in the world. The set contained 14 pieces of rocks taken from the moon by astronauts and a geologist who were on Apollo 17.

“What’s unique about these and why I really wanted to bring them in was that humans physically collected these samples,” Warner said. “It’s a good lesson for the students to say, ‘Yes we sent a geologist, they did field geology and they brought it back here.’”

This is the second time Warner has brought a NASA lunar sample to Geneseo in his three years as a Geneseo professor. They were shown to two geology classes and a group of high school teachers, but otherwise the samples were kept private so they would remain unharmed.

The samples, called “thin sections,” are thinner than a piece of paper and were placed in plastic slides to be observed under a microscope. “The best way to understand the mineralogy and the texture of a rock is to actually look at it under a microscope,” Warner said.

Three different types of rock were represented: volcanic rocks, impact breccias and regolith. Impact breccias are rocks that were broken up by asteroids and meteors hitting the moon billions of years ago, and regolith refers to “lunar soil,” which is similar to soil on Earth, but does not have any organic properties.

Lunar rocks are valuable to study compared to rocks located on Earth because the moon does not have an atmosphere, according to Warner.  Therefore, they have not experienced erosion and have not been weathered down in any way. The samples included were three to 4.4 billion years old, according to a dating method called radiogenic isotope dating.

“The moon captures a period of time that represents the earliest formation of the solar system. The moon rocks show you what was going on 4.4 billion years ago,” Warner said. “It’s just a rare opportunity.”

The lunar rocks were the focal point of a lab done by Warner’s Geological Sciences 334: Planetary Geology-Lab. The lab was mostly composed of observing the sections of rock under a microscope with polarized and un-polarized lighting, geophysics major senior Anna Chinchilli said.

“We look at thin sections a lot … it’s pretty standard,” Chinchilli said. “But I have never seen a thin section that looks like this one.”

The presence of the lunar rocks made outer space more physical and less conceptual to students, Chinchilli said. “When I think of outer space, I don’t think of the rocks that are there,” she said.

“It was for educational purposes, so the students could actually see something real and tangible, as opposed to a picture,” Warner said.

“It’s just so cool to think that these came from such a far distance away,” Chinchilli said. “You look up at the sky and the moon and it looks so distant, but astronauts actually brought part of that back and we could hold it and look at it.”