Most Moon Rocks Await Study

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — On the 30th anniversary of the first moon landing, only about 10 percent of the moon rocks brought back by Apollo astronauts have been studied, a University of Tennessee professor said Monday.

Dr. Larry Taylor, a UT-Knoxville geologist, has worked with NASA since the first rocks came back on Apollo 11 in July 1969. He continues to help the space agency distribute samples around the world.

Astronauts collected more than 830 pounds of moon rocks, but there are fewer scientists studying them, Taylor said.

“We were so concerned with bringing back samples that they were coming back here faster than we could handle them,” he said.

“It has taken years just to catalog the samples. There just aren’t as many scientists studying the moon anymore.”

While the research has been slow, Taylor said the samples continue to yield the moon’s secrets.

“Every year we find new things about the moon–new rock types, new ages of rock, and new chemistries that tell us more about the evolution of the moon. By studying the moon, we learn more about the Earth and the other planets, too,” he said.

“When the program ended, the money dried up. When the money left, so did the people.”

Taylor, who identified the oldest-known rocks on the moon, said more can be learned from the Apollo samples. While some rocks can be characterized by looking at only a small piece, most are aggregates of different types cemented together and must be examined more closely.

Today’s computers and more recent NASA missions such as Clementine and Prospector are helping scientists glean new data from old Apollo samples, he said.

“Recent NASA missions have shown that there might be water on the moon,” Taylor said. “We’re going back and looking at some of the Apollo rocks and soils, trying to better understand how and why water might occur.”

Scientists also learned from Apollo samples that lunar soils contain high concentrations of Helium 3, an element scarce on Earth but holding huge potential to produce energy. However, little research has been conducted on Helium 3.

Taylor said humans must return to the moon and learn more about lunar water, Helium 3, and to set up a lunar base for space exploration.

“One space shuttle load of Helium 3 would be enough to power the Earth for a full year, and it doesn’t produce radioactivity,” Taylor said. “That is really something to think about.”