UWO students inspect rocks borrowed from NASA

Mackenzie Seymour, Staff Writer

From 1969 to 1972, lunar samples were collected on Apollo missions 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17. Today, those same samples have ended up in the hands of a UW Oshkosh professor.

As part of their education and outreach program, NASA loans out lunar and meteorite samples for free to various universities across the country to enhance student interest in space exploration and science, as well as to aid professors in their curriculums for subjects such as geology, astronomy and physics.

Beth Johnson, a UWO-Fox Cities geology professor, has been borrowing the lunar and meteorite samples from NASA, including ones from Mars, since 2005. Since she was hired in 2011, she has been using these samples to teach about the formation of the solar system, the Late Heavy Bombardment period and the geology of the moon.

“Studying the composition of the moon and meteorites helps us learn more about the formation of those objects, and it also helps us learn more about the formation of the solar system and the Earth,” Johnson said.

When viewed under the microscope, the samples create a multi-colored field similar to a kaleidoscope. Johnson said this is due to light passing through the material and a polarizing filter in the microscope, causing refractions in the light.

“Different minerals will show up with different color patterns in this way and these colors or the pattern of colors can be used to identify the mineral,” Johnson said. “My favorite samples recovered from the moon are the orange soils, which are small, spherical beads of a volcanic glass called obsidian.”

For students like Meghan Krueger, a junior geology major, these samples provide an opportunity to gain a deeper insight into the material she has been learning in class.

“I think it’s interesting how different they are from Earth’s rocks. It is amazing that we get to see rocks from outer space and see the differences in geology,” Krueger said. “Looking at the samples again with a deeper understanding of geology, I can fully appreciate just how unique these lunar rocks are.”

As part of her curriculum, Johnson uses these space samples to aid in the understanding of how the moon formed. A few million years after the molten state of Earth’s formation, a large debris field circled the young Earth in rings. This debris field accreted under the influence of gravitation over time, and eventually created the moon.

When scientists like Johnson study the lunar samples, they can find the same materials from the moon on Earth. In fact, anorthosite, which is found on Earth and also makes up the lighter portions of the moon, is a unique mineral found in Wisconsin because it makes up ancient Precambrian-aged granites near Tigerton, Wisconsin.

“Beyond the educational aspect of using these samples, one of my other driving forces behind using these lunar and meteorite samples is to give my students the opportunity to say they have held the moon in their hands,” Johnson said. “How many of us can say that? And for some of my students, the ability to say that is quite moving and meaningful.

“Those are the moments when they tell me stories of stargazing with grandparents in the backyard or childhood dreams of being an astronaut,” she said. “And in one small way, I helped them to remember or even achieve those dreams just by bringing them into the classroom.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify that the samples are borrowed from NASA.