One Small Sample for Man…

Exploration of our universe may help uncover some of the key questions behind our evolutionary history. 

Exploration of our universe may help uncover some of the key questions behind our evolutionary history. 

The universe is thought to be approximately 13.8 billion years old, with the earliest forms of life on Earth thought to have begun as early as 4.1 billion years ago. Through the process of evolution simple carbon-based life forms evolved into some of the most complex forms of life we see today, yet some of the key questions as to how life began remain elusive. Some theories even suggest that life in the form of micro-organisms may have been brought to Earth from elsewhere in the Solar System through meteorite impacts. 

Our planet is just one of an unimaginable number. Understanding the evolution of planetary bodies in our solar system is one way we may attempt to provide an answer to our origins. 

The members of the Planetary and Space Sciences (PSS) discipline at The Open University have been involved in some of the major space missions including Stardust, Genesis, Rosetta and Cassini-Huygens. Based in Milton Keynes, the group have developed and built scientific instruments that have flown on some of these space missions. The OU planetary scientists are also world renowned for their laboratory analysis of extraterrestrial samples including Moon samples collected by Apollo and Luna missions and meteorites from Mars and asteroids.

In late 1960s and early 1970s during the manned Apollo and unmanned Luna missions to the Moon, surface samples were collected for laboratory analysis on Earth. Almost 50 years on, these same samples are being analysed using modern instrumentation to reveal new insights into the geological history of the Moon, including one of the most exciting discoveries of lunar water. These new and exciting results from recent laboratory studies on lunar samples were complemented by remote sensing data returned by a number of recent lunar missions such as India’s Chandrayaan-1 and NASA’s LRO discovering water at the lunar surface. 

Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing, with astronaut Buzz Aldrin. 

Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing, with astronaut Buzz Aldrin. 

We recently visited the lab of Dr Mahesh Anand at The Open University where they have measured water and its hydrogen isotopic composition in the mineral apatite in lunar samples by various Apollo missions. Dr Alice Stephant recently joined Dr Anand’s team at the OU and together they are planning to analyse water and hydrogen isotope composition of water trapped in tiny inclusions of melt (called melt inclusions or MI) in moon rocks, sourced from lunar volcanoes.

Moon rocks from various Apollo missions, including Apollo 11, were carefully cut and polished to approximately 30 µm thickness, and are ready for MI work. 

Using the Linkam TS1400XY, samples can be heated up to approximately 1400 °C, the temperature reached within lunar volcanoes, and quickly quench cooled to give the samples a smooth, glass like finish. These samples can then be analysed for their water contents and hydrogen isotopic composition using other analytical techniques. 

Dr Anand using the TS1400XY to look at mineral ilmenite, which is one of the constituents of the “dark” patches (called mare) on the moon. 

Dr Anand using the TS1400XY to look at mineral ilmenite, which is one of the constituents of the “dark” patches (called mare) on the moon. 

Compositional and isotopic analysis is a way of fingerprinting the origin and sources of various chemicals in our solar system. By exploring the potential sources of water and comparing samples from other planets within our solar system, it may help towards better understanding the evolutionary history and the formation of our solar system.

Analysing the composition of water is not only important in terms of tracing its origin but can have important implications for the future exploration of the solar system. 

The discovery of water may hold the key into the development of rocket fuel on the Moon itself. The establishment of a permanent base on the moon with its own source of rocket fuel would allow space exploration missions to delve deeper into space, by avoiding the huge amounts of energy required to escape the strong gravitational pull of the Earth.

We would like to thank Dr Anand for showing us his laboratory and the department and for discussing his work. We look forward to catching up soon. 

By Tabassum Mujtaba