Rutgers Professors Offer Insights about the Invaluable Lessons Gained from the Eagle Landing and Humans Walking on the Moon

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 liftoff and landing. On July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 spaceflight was launched from the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida. The lunar module “Eagle” became the first manned craft to land on the moon on July 20, 1969 at 4:17 p.m. And the first Earth residents to walk on the Moon Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin occurred moments after the Eagle landed.

Can you imagine a Moon colony in 25 years? Did you know that the Moon is actually an offshoot of the Earth? Read below for insights provided by two Rutgers professors, both local residents from the colonies of Highland Park and New Brunswick.

Rutgers University-New Brunswick professors Dr. Juliane Gross and Dr. Haym Benaroya discuss what has been learned since the Apollo 11 mission, including knowledge of the Earth-Moon system and the possibility of a future moon settlement.

Dr. Juliane Gross, a resident of Highland Park, is an associate professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in the School of Arts and Sciences. Her academic specialty is the study of the lunar crust and rocks that were collected from the Apollo missions. 

“There is so much we have learned and are still learning from the Apollo samples,” said Dr. Gross. 

She referred to the samples as tiny time capsules that provide insight into our solar system.

“From studying these samples we have and still are gaining insights into planetary processes, ranging from crater counting to age dating, from space weathering to remote sensing, from sample chemistry to accretion and planetary formation, etc. and all of it anchored by lunar samples,” said Dr. Gross.

“The analyses of the returned samples of the Moon gave us a deeper appreciation of the evolution of our nearest planetary neighbor and completely changed our view of the Earth-Moon system. Today we know that the Earth-Moon system most likely formed from a giant impact between two planetary bodies early in the Solar System history. The two bodies collided and chemically mixed. The impact ejected a huge amount of material. While some of this material escaped into space, the rest of it stayed in orbit around the newly formed planet that we call Earth today, and eventually this debris in orbit consolidated to form the Moon. This process is called the Giant Impact.”

Dr. Gross also explained the significance of a time period 3.8 to 3.9 billion years ago called the “Late Heavy Bombardment.” In this period, the moon was overwhelmed by impacts.

“The thing is though that 600 million years after the Solar System formed (about 4.5 billion years ago) things should have quieted down by then, there shouldn’t have been so many impacts happening anymore. So in order to explain the lunar sample record a new dynamical model of formation for the entire Solar System was developed. Basically in these models the gas planets have migrated through the Solar System to their position today. The migration disturbed asteroids and flung them into different orbits which caused a period of intense bombardment.

“This could explain the Late Heavy Bombardment that is recorded and preserved in the lunar samples. So not only can the lunar samples tell us about the formation of the Moon and the Earth but also can tell us about the formation of our entire Solar System. Amazing!” said Dr. Gross. 

Below, Dr. Gross has provided a summary of other findings and knowledge gained through the Apollo samples. 

  • “The Apollo samples are used to calibrate our remote sensing orbital instruments, to ground truth the data that we get back from them, so that global maps of element distribution on the surface can be created such as the global distribution of Fe or Ti. Or elements like oxygen and hydrogen with are constituents of water, or global distribution of minerals. So now we have maps with areas where we suspect water. 
  • The returned Apollo samples are also used for age dating not only the Moon but also other planetary surfaces throughout the Solar System. The relative ages of planetary bodies are estimated by looking at their crater history. This method (called crater counting) is based on the assumption that a new planetary surface has no impact craters; impact craters accumulate with time at an assumed rate. Therefore, counting the abundance of craters of various sizes on the surface would determine how long they have accumulated and, consequently, how long ago the surface has formed. Apollo samples were radiometrically dated, allowing the averaged cratering rate to be estimated much more accurately and thus were used to calibrate other surfaces and so allowed crater counting to be used as a chronometric tool with greater confidence.
  • The geochemistry and petrology of lunar samples gives us insight about the planetary origin and evolution from core formation to crustal evolution, including the lunar volatile (water) cycle. 
  • And the Apollo samples helped us recognize lunar meteorites. The returned Apollo samples are not representative of the lunar crust and all the geologic processes that exist on the Moon. The returned samples all come from a very interesting area on the nearside that is enriched in KREEP (Potassium-K; Rare Earth Elements -REE, Phosphorus-P). The rest of the Moon is not enriched in KREEP. The origin and global distribution of this KREEPy layer is still highly debated and is an area of active research (including my own research). Lunar meteorites come from random places all over the lunar surface, including the farside and thus, are on average more representative than the returned Apollo and Luna samples. These lunar meteorites are a treasure trove of new knowledge that expand our view of lunar origin, formation and evolution beyond Apollo and Luna. From these lunar meteorites we have gained insights into geological processes that we didn’t know existed; new young basalts have been discovered indicating that the Moon was active longer than previously thought; potential fragments of the lunar mantle have been found, which will give us insights into the interior of the Moon (we don’t know what the mantle of the Moon looks like); new rock types have been discovered that contain 30% pink spinel, etc., just to name a few things.”

Dr. Haym Benaroya, who lives in New Brunswick, is a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in the School of Engineering. His academic specialty is designing structures for extreme environments. Dr. Benaroya has dedicated much of his career to lunar settlement and space exploration, and he spoke to the future of a Moon settlement. 

“If we have sufficient funding, and the political will over several administrations, we could establish a settlement in about 10 to15 years, with something permanent (people living there forever) within 25 years,” he said. 

According to Dr. Benaroya, there are still challenges to overcome before a moon settlement is feasible. These include difficult engineering feats and human survival on the Moon. Low gravity, radiation, and extreme temperatures all pose threats to human life beyond Earth. 

“In addition to human physiology, human psychology poses significant challenges,” said Dr. Benaroya. “Many of these we cannot solve on Earth, and we have to be there to solve them.”

Solving these issues could provide an opportunity for momentous advancements. Dr. Benaroya explained the benefits that would follow a successful Moon settlement. 

“Besides the scientific and medical research benefits, by creating a new civilization on the Moon we would be creating new technologies, have access to new resources, even be able to microwave solar energy from the Moon to the Earth. A whole host of technologies would be developed that would otherwise not be in the short-term,” he said. “Also, such a broad and positive vision for the future can be very motivational to young people who are choosing careers – we know that during Apollo many studied STEM in undergraduate and graduate schools, even though they would not become astronauts or work at NASA. Space is a very positive vision for the future of humanity.”

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