Rare rocks: Mount Holyoke astronomy professor part of local team that will study lunar rocks on eve of moon landing’s 50th anniversary

  • Darby Dyar, a Mount Holyoke College astronomy professor, holds a rock from the moon in her lab. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Darby Dyar, a Mount Holyoke College astronomy professor, in her lab. At top, Dyar holds a rock from the moon. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Darby Dyar, a Mount Holyoke College astronomy professor, in her lab. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Darby Dyar, a Mount Holyoke College astronomy professor, with samples from the moon, in her lab. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Darby Dyar, a Mount Holyoke College astronomy professor, in her lab. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • This July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA shows Buzz Aldrin's boot and bootprint during a test of the lunar soil during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity. BUZZ ALDRIN/NASA via AP

  • In this July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA, astronaut Buzz Aldrin Jr. poses for a photograph beside the U.S. flag on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. Aldrin and fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong were the first men to walk on the lunar surface with temperatures ranging from 243 degrees above to 279 degrees below zero. Astronaut Michael Collins flew the command module. NEIL ARMSTRONG/NASA via AP

Staff Writer
Published: 7/12/2019 3:13:46 PM
Modified: 7/12/2019 3:13:33 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — Darby Dyar still remembers the awe she experienced the first time she studied a sample of lunar rock.

The Mount Holyoke College astronomy professor said that when studying rocks from Earth’s surface, geologists are always working backward, understanding that the samples they are observing have been significantly altered by water and the elements. But that’s not the case with lunar rocks.

“They’re just beautiful to look at under the microscope,” Dyar said. “It just blows your mind. You’re like, ‘Wow.’ It’s so beautiful. The grains are just pristine.”

Dyar first started working with lunar samples when she was doing her PhD research in 1979, so moon rocks are nothing new for her. That is, until this year, when she and other local researchers are getting the chance to study specially preserved lunar rocks for the first time ever.

With the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing approaching on July 20, NASA selected Dyar to lead a research team from Mount Holyoke and the University of Massachusetts Amherst that is studying moon samples that have never been exposed to Earth’s atmosphere.  Kept under vacuum seal for close to 50 years since astronauts brought them back from the moon, Dyar called the pea-sized rocks a “national treasure.”

“These things are incredibly precious,” she said. “It makes my hands shake when I work with them. I have all these flashbacks of watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.”

NASA announced in March that Dyar’s team was one of nine that would gain access to the rare untouched samples from the Apollo missions — right in time for the 50th anniversary.

Dyar’s research interest in the rocks is to determine their hydrogen and oxygen content. That data can offer insights into what the interior of the moon is like.

The lunar rocks are formed from the occasional explosive eruptions of magma that happen on the moon. Under the cold and almost vacuum-like conditions of the moon, that magma immediately cools to form glass beads that collect on the moon’s surface.

“These are important because the magma is coming from the lunar interior,” Dyar said.

By analyzing those rocks — and by extension the composition of the moons interior — Dyar and her fellow researchers can glean insights into the bigger questions of how planets and moons form, and why some form with water and become habitable.

The lunar samples Dyar has previously studied have been exposed to, and contaminated by, Earth’s own atmosphere and water.

“As earthlings we forget that every rock we pick up … has seen water,” she said. That’s not the case for these rocks, however, because the moon has only trace amounts of water.

During the Apollo missions, NASA was forward-thinking enough to deliberately save some lunar samples so that they could wait until researchers had better technology to analyze them.

“That’s a pretty remarkable thing that they did,” Dyar said, particularly given the thought at the time that moon landings would become a frequent occurrence in the future. “Somebody in NASA was prescient and decided to set these samples aside.”

Dyar said that many people mistakenly think that the United States brought back “dump trucks of samples back from the moon.” In reality, she said, it is only a few refrigerators worth of rock samples.

Of around 2,000 samples that came back from the moon, only six are left unstudied, and only a few of those are pristine and untouched.

To study those samples, teams had to submit detailed proposals to NASA. The first part of the local team’s research will be done at a government lab outside of Chicago, and the second half will take place at UMass Amherst.

“I feel incredibly lucky that we got the money and our proposal was selected,” Dyar said.

The samples are just rocks, at the end of the day, Dyar said. But they also offer a rare research opportunity. And as the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing approaches, they are a reminder of a groundbreaking moment in human history.

“It’s the historical significance that adds the extra panache to it,” she said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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