July 18, 2019 | David F. Coppedge

Lunar Scientists Fight the Dust

This entry continues our recap of lunar science in the 50 years since Apollo 11.

5 Strange, Cool Things We’ve Recently Learned About the Moon (Live Science). Reporter Kimberly Hickok includes the low abundance of siderophile elements (see yesterday’s entry) in her list of “cool things” as #4, but it’s not obvious how tweaking luck is cool. Here’s her list, with our questions and comments in brackets:

  • There is water on the moon, and it jumps around. Water molecules migrate to cold traps in shadowed craters. [But should it be there after billions of years?]
  • There’s an enormous, dense blob of metal below the surface of the moon’s south pole. “The researchers aren’t sure how this giant blob of metal got itself trapped below the lunar surface,” she comments. [Then the storytelling starts.]
  • The moon is shrinking and quaking. [Shouldn’t it have quieted down after billions of years?]
  • You won’t strike it rich on the moon. This is her take on the lack of gold and other siderophile elements. [Sliding into a trance, Hickok relates the myth of Theia.]
  • The moon is two-faced (probably because of a massive asteroid). [Lady Luck to the rescue again.]

Alan Bean autographLunar Dust-up

Questions about moon dust go way back before the first landing. Until Surveyor 1 soft-landed in 1966, nobody was sure if a landing was even possible. Calculations had suggested a craft would sink out of sight into a thick blanket of dust accumulated over billions of years. A JPL News article, “The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Apollo Connection,” confirms the fear at the time:

Five of the seven Surveyors were successful, and the missions answered a key question that would face the Apollo program: “How strong is the lunar surface? There had been some fear that the landers would merely sink into dust, and that would be bad,” Conway said. He added that while a Soviet probe had already demonstrated that the fear was probably groundless, the Surveyor series used engineering instruments that “really nailed that down.

Buzz Aldrin had a hard time hammering the core tube into the lunar surface. Art by Alan Bean, Apollo 12 astronaut.

The Apollo 11 astronauts were able to scrape bedrock with their boots under a thin layer of dust. Buzz Aldrin couldn’t hammer through it. Of this unexpected result, Alan Bean, who walked on the moon on the next mission Apollo 12, writes about his artwork (left):

Apollo 11 Astronaut Buzz Aldrin is driving a core tube into the moon’s surface. He is finding it more difficult than he anticipated, much harder than driving into the dirt or sand he used in training here on earth.

The whole idea of a core tube is to quickly obtain a continuous sample of surface and subsurface soil. The core tube itself is a hollow metal pipe a foot long with a sharp edge bit on the leading edge. It is then attached to a tool extension handle so that it can be driven into the surface from a standing positing.

Well, the core tube is not going into the moon as expected.

Buzz would comment, “I pushed in 3 or 4 inches and then started tapping it with the hammer. I found that it wasn’t doing much at all of penetrating further. I started beating it harder and harder and I managed to get it into the ground maybe 2 inches. I was hammering it in about as hard as I felt I could safely do it. Well, it just wouldn’t go in any farther.”

Buzz continued, “I didn’t find any resistance at all in retracting the core tube. It came up quite easily. I didn’t find any tendency at all for the material to come out.”

Later, on earth, scientists would say that the soil was fine grained, granular, slightly cohesive, and incompressible. The samples show no fossil life, no living organisms, and no organic materials. More importantly, they would conclude that the moon dust holds no threat to life on earth.” (Alan Bean, Apollo: An Eyewitness Account, p. 68).

Some creationists latched onto these facts as evidence for a young moon, but later recalculations of dust accumulation caused most of them to back off that argument (but not all, see Walt Brown‘s take). If material has been arriving at the moon for 4.5 billion years, then it has to accumulate. This matter deserves more discussion (21 Nov 2013, 12 Oct 2016, 18 July 2018).

The moon-walking astronauts remember dust being a big nuisance. It clung to everything and was hard to get rid of. The moon rovers kicked up dust, which fell in ballistic paths due to the lack of an atmosphere. The problem is evident in Apollo videos (example). The dust was more than an irritant, though; later work showed that dust can travel at high speeds around the moon (27 Nov 2007), and if ingested by future astronauts, could damage the lungs (22 March 2007).

Moon dust is not to be sneezed at (Phys.org). This article is primarily historical, recounting what scientists found in the first rock samples returned by the Apollo astronauts. Within it lies a lesson for scientists who dare boast of their wisdom:

So what did the researchers find out? “Give me a piece of the moon and I will tell you how our solar system was formed,” said American Nobel laureate Harold C. Urey before the Apollo flights. This hope was in vain—not least because the rocks and dust from the surface are by no means pure primeval substance. On the contrary, the moon has been changed over the eons by smelting processes, so it is not the geologically primitive celestial body that most experts had believed it to be.

Now, to the findings:

Earth’s companion is scarred by craters that were created as cosmic lumps of rock impacted on its surface. Lava flows that had spread across the surface after particularly large fragments had collided with the infant moon formed the so-called seas. In addition, the permanent bombardment of smaller meteorites pulverizes the rock and covers the surface of the moon with a meter-thick layer of dust. This regolith contains not only sand grains, but also glassy inclusions. The researchers discovered that the samples contained a dozen minerals, above all pyroxene, plagioclase and ilmenite.

The similarities to earth rocks ruled out the capture theory. While seeming to support the fission theory or co-accretion theory, those both had other physical problems. Scientists puzzled over the similarities for years. The Giant Impact hypothesis took root well after Apollo, in the 1980s. But more recently, the lack of siderophile elements has created new problems for that theory, requiring theory rescue devices, as explained in yesterday’s entry.

Apollo 16 astronaut John Young romps around the moon in the rover like a Grand Prix driver, kicking up dust. Art by Alan Bean.

Two Conspiracies

The article says that moon rocks rule out conspiracy theories that the Americans never went to the moon but filmed the Apollo moon landings on a sound stage in Hollywood. Why? Because the rocks the Russians returned from robotic missions matched those from Apollo perfectly. During the cold war, the Russians would never have conspired with the Americans to dupe the public using Hollywood collaborators! For more answers to this persistent conspiracy theory, see “Moon landings footage would have been impossible to fake – a film expert explains why,” by Harold Barry at The Conversation. See also Phys.org and Space.com for answers to specific claims that Apollo was a hoax.

The article ends with a smaller conspiracy, though. One of the scientists at the Max Planck Institute walked outside after working on moon rock samples, and, under a full moon, sneezed. To his horror, he found two fragments of lunar dust in his handkerchief. He was afraid because NASA required every Apollo sample to be fully accounted for. Apparently he had breathed in some of the dust while in the lab. “After giving it a lot of thought, I decided not to record my findings after all,” said Heinrich Wänke . “To this day the Americans don’t know anything about this.” Well, now they do!

My Brother Jim Irwin, by Alan Bean

My Brother Jim Irwin (Apollo 15), by Alan Bean (Apollo 12)

It’s sad when people repeat conspiracy theories about Apollo, and especially when Christians get caught up into it (worse when some go after the Flat Earth myth). The Bible calls us to test all things; hold fast to what is good (I Thessalonians 5:21). Tests can come out positive or negative, and Apollo is overwhelmingly confirmed. To deny it would be to imagine that hundreds of thousands of workers knew about a lie, but none of them ever revealed it for these 50 years or more. It would also require believing the entire space program, with images of every planet and moon, has been a big lie! As for the Earth’s sphericity, with hundreds of satellites circling the Earth every day, and astronauts looking out the windows on every orbit, how can anyone be so blind to the obvious? Open your eyes! Take it from James Irwin, a Christian and staunch Bible believer who walked and drove on the moon for Apollo 15. He was no liar!

Certain people seem to have a complex that leads them to deny everything, as if that makes them wise or righteous. Some Christians become so hyper-literalist that they become fools. The Bible commands us to be wise and use our brains. Doubting everything and finding conspiracies around every corner does not help the cause of Christ; it damages it. Fortunately, creationists are providing solid answers to the Flat Earthers (see Pat Roy and David Rives for example; all of the major creation organizations strongly oppose this disturbing movement and the Apollo conspiracy theory). Context shows when passages are to be assumed historical or poetical. One does not build doctrines on poetical books. To those who would mock creationists over this, realize that lefties have their own kooks to worry about (trekkies, alien theories, etc.). This is not an issue of theology but of simple common sense. Apollo was for real; the moon is round; get used to it.

As the Apollo 50th ramps up for Saturday celebrations, we’ll share other news concerning the moon and noteworthy events to watch for.

Dave Scott, Apollo 15 commander, drops a hammer and a feather to demonstrate Galileo’s thought experiment that both would drop at the same rate in the absence of air. They did: another proof that the lunar landings were real. Art by Alan Bean.


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